Blog post

Skills-based approach to apprentice selection - trends review

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4 minutes

The apprenticeship job route is a critical entry point for many young people as they leave education. This post discusses trends and recommendations to consider when taking a skills-based approach to your apprenticeship selection process.

Executive Summary

The apprenticeship job route is a critical entry point for many young people as they leave education.  It provides a structured approach to entering the workforce, and for many young people is a more viable alternative than attending University.

For employers, apprenticeships provide a way to access exceptional young talent, to invest in its potential, and to develop skills in young people that will stay with them for life.  Apprentices are also more likely to stay longer with their employer (UK Government research, 2018) and there are many examples of apprentices reaching senior levels within the company they started work at.

However, employers have work to do to improve the process of apprentice recruitment.  More apprentices reject or renege on offers than is typically seen in the graduate assessment process, and employers report a mismatch between hiring manager expectations and the skills that the apprentice has from day one of employment.  Employers therefore need to do more to clarify expectations of their apprentice scheme, both to engage the prospective employee and to set realistic expectations in terms of their contribution to the organisation.   Organisations also need to improve their measurement of attributes that will drive success in the role through the recruitment process.

Apprenticeship Trends

This paper provides more information about apprenticeships, the trends in hiring apprentices, and the attributes to measure in order to maximise the effectiveness of the apprentice selection process.

At Spotted Zebra, we work with leading organisations to build Success Profiles for critical roles, and personalised assessments to enable the organisation to directly measure those attributes.  This enables our clients to identify candidates who have a close fit to role requirements and to the organisational context, and show high levels of motivation for the role.  This enables our clients to identify future employees who will:

  • Deliver up to 4x productivity vs. poor performers
  • Be more engaged and more productive, which improves performance by 20-25%
  • Align with the culture and team dynamics, which enables them to deliver strong outcomes against organisational goals (15- 45% depending on the metric used).

What are apprenticeships?

Apprenticeships are paid jobs that incorporate on and off the job training. A successful apprentice may qualify with a nationally recognised qualification on completion of their contract.

In 2018/19, there were 742,400 people participating in an apprenticeship in England, with 393,400 apprenticeship starts and 185,100 apprenticeship achievements.

Over 4.2 million apprenticeships were started between 2010/11 and 2018/19, with 2.2 million apprenticeship achievements. Apprenticeships can be studied at different qualification levels:

What are the trends in apprenticeships?

In the first two quarters of the 2019/20 academic year (August to January), there were 209,900 apprenticeship starts. This was a drop of 11% from the same period in 2018/19.

The number of apprentices aged 16 to 19 fell by the most over this period. There were 60,600 starts by apprentices aged 16 to 19 in the first two quarters of the 2019/20 academic year.  This was a 15% fall in starts for this age group.

Small and medium-sized employers have seen a drop of 43% in apprenticeship starts since 2016/17.  Starts increased by 8% (16,120) for large employers (250 or more employees) between 2016/17 and 2018/19.

Large employers are therefore reporting more applications from apprentice candidates, adding to the importance of the organisation implementing a streamlined and effective selection process.

Which sectors employ the highest number of apprentices?

83% of starts in 2018/19 were in the following four sector areas, with over half in the top two areas:

  • Business Administration and Law: 119,000 starts (30% of all starts), up 7,500 from 2017/18.
  • Health, Public Services and Care: 98,000 starts (25% of starts), up 9,400 from 2017/18.
  • Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies: 60,000 starts (15% of starts), down 1,500 from 2017/18.
  • Retail and Commercial Enterprise: 51,000 starts (13% of starts), down by around 500 from 2017/18.

That said, in April 2020, just one month into the COVID-19 situation, providers reported an 80% reduction in apprenticeship starts. As employers focus on rebuilding their business after COVID-19, we’re likely to see a reduction in apprenticeship starts across many sectors.  This is likely to lead to more applications and therefore requires organisations to have a clearly defined assessment process.

Sectors such as product development, engineering, technology and healthcare are likely to experience an increase in starts. COVID-19 has transformed these industries and even shifted public opinion of skills, which may result in an increase in apprenticeship starts in some key areas.

Trends in fulfilling apprentice vacancies

In 2018-19, just over a quarter of organisations (27%) didn’t fill all their apprentice vacancies. Overall, an average of 5% of apprentice vacancies went unfilled.

Apprentice roles attract an average of 29 applications per vacancy, compared to 75 applications per vacancy for graduate jobs.

An average of 5% of apprentice job offers were declined and 4% of apprentice job offers were reneged last year.  Whilst these are similar to those seen in graduate recruitment, our experience is that organisations tend to assume that apprentices will definitely accept their offer and be less “in demand” than graduates.  This is not the case.

Spotted Zebra recommendations

- Have a “Keep warm” focus: apprentices have far less experience of the world of work and how employment works. It’s therefore really important to engage them in regular and meaningful dialogue from the point of offer, helping them to familiarise themselves with the company and the role.

Meeting other apprentices, graduates, managers and structured learning or onboard activity is likely to be hugely valuable.  They may also need practical support and advice around what it means to be at work or logistical information (relocation, transport etc).

- It is important to keep your selection process as short and targeted as possible, with a blend of objective measurement to ensure that the candidate has the attributes you are looking for with one-to-one time with a recruiter and/or line manager to explore their fit to the role in more detail. This also gives the candidate time to find out whether the company is right for them.

Skills to measure in a selection process

Employers recruiting apprentices should bear in mind that many technical skills will be taught during the apprenticeship; applicants will not necessarily have them when they are applying, especially younger people with little or no experience in the workplace.

Instead, employers should look for candidates that can demonstrate behaviours and motivation that align with the requirements of the role.  They must demonstrate an aptitude for the work and training they will undergo in the role.

Based on Spotted Zebra research into the attributes that drive success in an apprentice role, employers should assess the following 5 key attributes.

Produces great work

First and foremost you need to know that the candidate will take pride in their work, and ensure that it is completed to a high standard. In our Spotted Zebra assessment solution, high performers in this attribute tend to organise their work effectively and are motivated by delivering great work for others. It’s therefore a good idea to ask questions about this in the interview, but you might also look for small details. For example, has the candidate taken the time to proofread an application form or CV, therefore showing a level of care and commitment?

Makes things happen

This is an attribute that we know managers love to see at all levels of the organisation, but at a junior level it is even more critical to job success. In our model, we look for three things here - can someone take action and do they take responsibility? The reason this is so critical is that the new recruit is likely to be put into situations that are unfamiliar with and where they may not have all the answers. Successful recruits will spot problems quickly, take ownership and escalate issues only when absolutely necessary to do so.

Personal stretch

In our Spotted Zebra model, we refer to this as ‘Seeks Progression’. In essence, this is someone who is always looking for opportunities to stretch themselves, develop their skills and step out of their comfort zone. High performers will take on these challenges, and even more importantly they will be able to share with you what they learned from the experience. This is vital as the apprentice role will be a new experience in so many ways - those who thrive will immerse themselves in the challenge, and remain open to feedback to enable them to progress quickly.

Interpersonal skills and team-work

Like any potential employee, it’s important that apprentices are able to work as part of a team and develop good working relationships with colleagues. At Spotted Zebra, our assessment solution identifies candidates who can work collaboratively with colleagues from different teams and backgrounds, support others and listen to their perspectives. Targeted questions at interview stage can identify whether this is an attribute the candidate possesses, particularly if supported by information from our personality tool.

Future potential

Finally, you of course hope that the new, high performing recruit will stay for your organisation for a long time and progress to roles of increasing responsibility and complexity. Future potential can often be seen as difficult to describe, let alone measure. The Spotted Zebra assessment solution measures these attributes in terms of the candidate’s capacity to adapt quickly to change, to build and energize strong internal and external networks, and to show a broad commercial understanding of how the company operates and how it will continue to innovate to stay ahead in its market.


hen assessing apprentices and evaluating their suitability for a role, it is critical to remember that the experiences that they have had and the examples they can provide at interview will not always be set in a workplace context. So our final piece of guidance is to encourage all stakeholders involved in the process to look beyond what the candidate has done, and focus instead on how they did it. If the candidate approaches tasks in a way that aligns with how your organisation does things, and has the motivation to be successful, they are likely to be successful in role.

Using the Spotted Zebra assessment methodology we enable clients to identify and nurture the key underlying attributes that will drive success, and spot potential from the first day of employment.  This ensures that you get the best person for the role and protect the future health of your organisation.