With up to 60% of apprentices dropping out in the first year, the retention of apprentices has become an essential focus of Australian policymakers. Finding a strategy that works is imperative to every apprentice’s wellbeing and employment prospects, as well as Australia’s economic growth.
The good news is, behavioural science research into apprentice retention now provides us with an in-depth understanding of the current issues facing the industry, including the attitudes and behaviours affecting the engagement of participants and employers during the apprenticeship contract. The Esher House research team have applied these insights and developed a commitment assessment informed by predictive analytics. It acts as an early warning system to identify those apprentices who are at high risk of non-completion. This recognition of potential risk factors early on helps to inform tailored strategies and interventions for mentors that can significantly improve the probability of the participant fulfilling their potential and completing their qualification.
The challenges facing new apprentices
Beginning an apprenticeship is often an exciting but also demanding time. For those who begin after finishing Year 12, the transition from school to an apprenticeship coincides with the developmental transition from adolescence to emerging adulthood – a challenging time even without a new apprenticeship. Further, many apprentices can lack the motivation and confidence in themselves to commit wholly to their study and training on commencement. Others may come into the process expecting to succeed but start to wobble when faced with personal challenges and obstacles (family commitments, work/study balance etc).
What is really pertinent in the research into apprenticeship completion is that 74% of apprentices cite that they left due to employment related reasons, with the most common issue being ‘not getting on with the boss or co-workers’ (NCVER, 2020). As a result of these challenges, apprentices- especially the 40.6% identified by the algorithm as at risk of dropping out – may already have low self-efficacy and lack the mental toughness to weather any problems arising from the employment experience or personal factors. This can be even harder for the more vulnerable cohorts such as long-term employed or NEET and/or those suffering from mental illness.
Unfortunately, when the apprentice’s confidence and mental toughness is knocked as a result of the factors mentioned above, the chances of the apprentice continuing their training decreases. So does their chance of persisting with the training. Bandura found in his research that “self-efficacy is one of the most effective predictors of success in any working environment”. Therefore, providing apprentices with evidence-based tools that build resilience and support self-efficacy in the apprenticeship on the job environment is imperative to successful completion.
The role of post-placement support
Post-placement mentor support is critical to helping an apprentice ride, celebrate and negotiate the ups and downs of their journey. This support can be extremely useful in assisting them in diffusing and overcoming some of the ‘employment-related factors’ and ‘personal factors’ mentioned above. The support needs to be tailored and timely to be most effective in supporting the apprentice. Esher House’s algorithm-informed coaching tips provide mentors with key conversations based on the scientifically established transtheoretical model of behaviour change, including techniques like motivational interviewing and appreciative inquiry.
We’ve built on these coaching tips further to demonstrate how specific ‘post-placement activity interventions’ informed by behavioural science can help build resilience and/or self-efficacy in apprentice post placement. Mentors can work through these activities with their ‘high risk’ apprentices before a problem arises, or if and when an apprentice communicates that they are thinking of throwing it all in, be it in the first week, first month or further down the line, these simple exercises can be used to help find solutions to buffer the challenges faced.
Three post-placement activity internation examples
1. ABCD Put it in Perspective – Putting a problem/scenario into perspective is a really useful exercise to help your apprentice take stock and see the bigger picture. It teaches them not to take things personally and brings awareness to our ‘jumping to conclusions type of irrational thinking’ and how to challenge those automatic thoughts with more grounded rational ones.
Run through a scenario that client is currently experiencing such as ‘workmates don’t talk to you’ or ‘manager ignores you’ and then work together to dispute (the “D” in ABCD) alternatives followed by finding solutions. Explain to the client that their emotions/behavioural responses are not caused by the ‘event’ but by their ‘irrational or unhelpful beliefs’. Rational beliefs are true and helpful and irrational beliefs are false and unhelpful. So, work out how likely something really is to happen then ‘PiiP’-it: Put it in Perspective!
|Activating Event||Belief||Consequence||Dispute PiiP|
|Colleagues don’t talk to me||“They must not like me”
“Maybe they are upset about something I did”
|Feel = Anxiety, stress, loneliness
Behave =You go to the vending machine for chocolate to make you feel better
|“Maybe they are just busy with their own work”
“Maybe they are introverted like me”
“I could make an effort to talk to them”
|Argument with a colleague||“He’s never liked me”
“Everyone here treats me badly”
“This happened to me before, therefore it must be me!”
|Frustration, anger, resentment
You turn up for training late the next day or take a sick day because you can’t face them
|“I’m blowing this up way out of proportion”
“It’s not personal, we just have different opinions and maybe we’ve pushed each other’s buttons”
2. Strength Spotting – Ask your apprentice to practice spotting strengths in others at their training, which will help them develop empathy. Situations might include seeing that the boss is overwhelmed already so doesn’t have time to help you (and enabling the client to not take that personally), or recognising that if someone is overreacting it may be that their buttons are being pushed (i.e. they’re over-reacting to a past situation, or someone’s doing the opposite of their strengths. For example, if someone else has “Teamwork” as a natural character strength, you’ll see them get angry faster than others if they feel that someone isn’t mucking-in. This helps you know how someone ticks and anticipate things.
Spotting strengths can help apprentices get the most out of relationships and interactions including understanding why some people may react the way they do. Taking a moment to appreciate this and not respond negatively helps to manage situations and conflict between colleagues more effectively…and people will even start to value the apprentice more. If your apprentice is unaware of their strengths, you can direct them to VIA.org to find out more.
3. Positivity and gratitude – At the end of each day, get your apprentice to jot down, say, two good things that happened e.g. when they enjoyed a coffee with a new colleague, learnt a new skill, arrived on time. If daily is too much then just ask them to name 2 or 3 good things since you last chatted, regardless of whether it’s apprenticeship related. (“Try to think about the many things in your job/study, both large and small, which have been good, or someone to whom you’re grateful there?” It may take them a while to get thinking…but if they’re really stuck, they can include non-apprenticeship scenarios). These might include supportive work relationships, sacrifices or contributions that others have made for them, advantages or opportunities at work, free coffee, working out how to use the photocopier, not having to deal with arguing family at home, or thankfulness for the opportunity to have got onto a course at all.
Post-placement support can make all the difference
There’s a lot we can do to support high risk apprentices through their learning journey, and for many, post-placement support can mean the difference between successful completion and a lifetime of regret. The more we come to understand about individual circumstances and behaviours – as well as the ability of behavioural science-backed activities like those developed by Esher House to support them through times of challenge – the more likely we are to boost their chances of completion. While that’s good news for us as service providers and mentors for these apprentices, for them it may mean a lifetime of difference to their prospects of employment and living a fulfilled work life.