Apprentice to director - Joe's housing story
Joe Cook, executive director of development at Home Group, trained as an apprentice before working his way up. For National Apprenticeship Week, he explains the unique role apprentices play in housing and why we must embrace them in order to keep the industry moving forward.
Over the years apprenticeships have risen and fallen in their importance. Under New Labour people were pushed towards tertiary education, with polytechnics starting to offer degrees. Kids leaving school were actively encouraged to not go into apprenticeships and to go to university instead.
Thankfully, apprenticeships are now back in fashion, but we can’t rest on our laurels. With the housing and construction industries reliant on apprentices as a source of new talent, we must ensure they remain both fit for purpose and interesting to the next generation.
I started out as an apprentice surveyor in 1979, working for a small practice in Glasgow. My employer was enrolled in the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors programme, meaning at the end of my five years I became qualified and could progress to become a chartered surveyor.
My apprenticeship opened up massive opportunities. Becoming a chartered surveyor gave me life-changing experiences, such as the chance to go and work abroad, which I could never have done without it.
For me, the advantage of five years study coupled with five years actually learning on the job experience was second to none. I came out as a very hands-on, practical surveyor who actually understood how things worked, as opposed to just knowing the theory.
When I speak to apprentices and graduates at Home Group about the reasons they joined our scheme, it’s often along the lines of my own experience; they had university places offered but didn’t want to go. I had offers to study both chemistry and PE, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do.
We seem to have now come full circle, where the government recognises that we need apprentices, especially trade apprentices; but also for those who want to be in professional roles, be it architects, engineers or surveyors, there’s another way to do it.
So far, so positive, but here’s the part about not resting on our laurels. Right now apprenticeships hold a unique place in our industry. We have an ageing construction workforce, and the only way to address this is to get younger people back into the trades.
To do this we need to modernise the apprenticeship offering. Is working in construction something that attracts young people? Frankly, no. For six months of the year you’re working in rain, wind, snow and hail, then you might get a good summer - or you might just get more rain.
At Home Group, we’ve worked hard to create a leading apprenticeship offer - and not just in the sector. Last year we were named the best large employer at the National Apprenticeship Awards. Our approach is to offer varying roles across our business, with positions ranging from entry level all the way up to degree and masters.
What housing and constructions needs is to consider the whole business when it comes to apprenticeships – not just development. You can have apprentices in finance, legal and social care roles, and one thing I want to introduce this year are apprentices in new home sales.
Organisations need to look across the entire spectrum of their business and try to fit apprentices in wherever reasonable.
Housing associations are in a strong position to support their customers through apprenticeships as well. We create 70 apprentices each year that are exclusively for Home Group customers. It’s a great way to support their aspirations and bring new ideas into the organisation.
I’m also really proud that 80 per cent of our apprentices across the business move into long-term employment with us. Creating this pipeline of new talent is essential to ensuring the sector is continually reinvigorated. It’s no surprise to me that once people get a taste of housing and construction, it’s where many want to build their careers.
Most big social trends tend to be cyclical. If we’re to stand a chance of avoiding another fall in the value placed on apprenticeships we must work harder to keep them relevant. This means speaking to current and future apprentices to understand what works and, most importantly, what doesn’t.
Just as in my case, apprenticeships in housing and construction can open up a world of exciting opportunities for young people to go on and make their mark. The moment we become complacent and stop refining our offer, however, is the moment we stop attracting the best and brightest who can lead us in the future.