Strong mentoring programs can help our apprentices achieve more

By Ron Maxwell - CEO

Mentoring programs offer newcomers to an industry the support of someone experienced who can offer a sounding board, show them the ropes and act as a conduit between them and the employer. Typically, the concept has been associated with startups and tech firms, but it has started to gain momentum in the apprenticeship world.

In my opinion, this is something we need to encourage further. As many industries face skill shortages, and apprentice numbers decline, programs that provide additional support and encourage apprentices to stick with it can only be a good thing.

Completion rates can be lifted

According to the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) almost half of apprenticeship contracts in our trades are not completed. And in the same research, NCVER found that one of the key reasons for failing to complete a contract is interpersonal difficulties with employers or colleagues.

Many employers who take on apprentices are small businesses, who don’t have the back office or HR staff to help them engage their employees. Think about the self-employed builder, for example. The business might be just them and a couple of apprentices, so if an issue or challenge for the apprentice arises, they may not have the resources or the time to dedicate to working through the problem. In situations like this, a mentoring program really comes into its own and can be the difference between the apprentice quitting or staying on to become qualified.

When you add to this the fact that apprentices are often young people making the significant transition from a school environment to the workforce, providing advice and support at this critical time really makes sense. This support can play a vital role all the way through the apprenticeship. In fact, we know there are various stages throughout an apprenticeship where the risk of dropping out is at its greatest.

The first of these is at the very beginning, where a negative experience can see the apprentice reconsider their decision. Mentoring during this time really helps them to integrate into the workforce. Many apprentices are minors when they commence, so another high-risk period can occur when they turn eighteen. This is a key milestone and a time when peers can have significant influence, so a mentor can really help keep them on track.

Another time when we see dropouts escalate is during the third year. Fatigue can set in, and with another year still to go, it can seem like another mountain to climb. At VERTO, our completion rate sits about the industry average and, I believe, our mentoring program plays a significant role in this.

The impact goes beyond the workplace

Mentoring can really help in all aspects of an apprentice’s life, as they make decisions that impact their whole lives. More time than I can count, we have had apprentices who have come to us on the verge of packing in their apprenticeship and putting their future at risk, both professionally and personally, and working with a mentor has really brought them back from the edge.

It’s great for diversity too

Mentoring has proven benefits when it comes to supporting diversity too. I’ve talked before about how important it is that encourage more women into apprenticeships and traditional trades, and mentoring is one way we can increase participation and retention. VERTO recently worked with a young Indigenous woman who is studying to be a light vehicle mechanic. Her employer has organised for her to be mentored by another female mechanic, who can not only help her with skill development, but provide career advice, and share her own experiences of working as a woman in a male-dominated industry.

We are seeing mentoring play an increasingly critical role in diversity across many industries. Just one example of this is Alcoa of Australia, who this week reached 10% female participation at their Pinjarra Alumina Refinery, in a workforce that has long been almost exclusively male.

Mentoring is also a successful way to attract and retain Indigenous employees.   Indigenous Australians can face additional personal, cultural and social challenges when it comes to workforce participation and having an Indigenous mentor in their chosen industry can greatly improve outcomes.

Funding is needed for supply to meet demand

Both apprentices and their employers are realising the benefits of mentoring, however, demand is far outstripping supply. Mentoring programs under the Australian Apprenticeship Support Network (AASN) receive some government funding, however, there are simply not enough places. The federal government recently launched the fantastic Industry Specific Mentoring for Australian Apprentices program, which will open up more places, but with government funding cuts to the Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector, there’s more that can be done.

Mentoring is a great thing and we need to see more of it for our apprentices, but it can’t stand alone in building the skills they need to excel in their chosen industries. These programs need to sit alongside a strong, healthy VET sector so that we are providing our apprentices with the best possible chance of success from the very beginning.