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Neil Weller, alumnus and building services engineer sponsoring staff to study at LSBU

Neil Weller, Managing Partner and LSBU Alumnus

Neil Weller, Managing Partner at engineering consultancy TB+A, talks about why sponsored study has become such an integral part of their business operations

For over 50 years Troup Bywater & Anders (TB+A) has helped UK and international companies, government agencies and developers turn their vision into reality. Their nationwide network of consulting building services engineers and designers work with institutional and commercial clients across a wide range of sectors and disciplines to create award-winning engineering designs that bring buildings to life.

London South Bank University (LSBU) delivers high quality professional and technical sponsored education to over 6,500 students funded by nearly 1,000 employer partners. The University has been working with TB+A for over five years delivering a variety of courses from BTEC HNDs in Building Services Engineering to the MSc in Sustainable Energy Systems. We spoke to Neil Weller, Managing Partner and LSBU alumnus, about his own experience as an apprentice and why sponsored study has become such an integral part of their operation...

Interview with Neil Weller

Tell us about your own experiences as an apprentice.
NW: I started my own apprenticeship in Building Services in 1976. I spent two years at South Thames College in Wandsworth before transferring to the Polytechnic of the South Bank (now London South Bank University), while working at what was then Haden Young Ltd. I knew building services was the path I wanted to go down and in those days an indentured apprenticeship was the common way to start your career. For me, it worked well to be able to put the theory I was learning into practice straight away.

When did Troup Bywaters & Anders start sponsoring staff to study, and why? 
NW: We started discussing the idea of sponsored study around the time of the economic crash in 2008, when there was a lot of talk in the press about a ‘lost generation’ of young people. We wanted to create opportunities for them and help them realise their potential. The idea of apprenticeships and vocational education in general seemed to have fallen out of favour. But since tuition fees came in, the pendulum has started to swing back the other way. 

Now we’re seeing many young people who’d prefer to start working than accumulate student debt, and want to be learning at the same time. We took on our first cohort of Building Services Engineering Apprentices in 2012. We see it as a way of tackling the growing skills gap, and a valuable addition to the established graduate route into the profession with the added bonus of gaining valuable work experience along the way. It also fits well with our ethos as a company. We’ve always been a practice that’s worked hard to nurture talent and to promote from within. 

For us, apprenticeships are an effective way of growing talent and developing a motivated, skilled and qualified workforce. Our hope is that those young people we sponsor will be more likely to stick with us for the long term.

How many staff are you sponsoring at the moment?
NW: We are sponsoring around 25 staff in total, out of a total practice workforce of about 210 – so it’s a significant proportion. The numbers have gone up every year since we started and interest is really high – we’re usually over-subscribed. The first cohort of students is now in their fourth year.

What are they studying?
NW: All our students spend two years at South Thames College in Wandsworth studying for a BTEC in Construction and the Built Environment. That brings them up to Engineering Technician level, in line with the UK Standard for Professional Engineering Competence. Then depending on their grades and performance, they go on to study for an HND or BSc on a day release basis. We currently have seven students studying at LSBU.

What kind of support do you provide for students in the workplace?
NW: All our students are partnered with a mentor. They have fortnightly study sessions together and mentors will also check that their portfolio of evidence meets the criteria set by the Engineering Council before going out for external assessment. They’re also there to help them get used to the world of work: that can be a big adjustment in itself for a young person who’s come straight from school. Mentors come from within the existing workforce, and we provide in-house training for them. We’re tapping into a long-standing tradition in engineering, where the generation above encourages and supports those that are up and coming. Now we’re starting to see apprentices from the early years mentoring those in later groups, which is really encouraging.

What would you say are the key benefits of sponsored study?
NW: The most obvious benefit has to be the calibre of the youngsters themselves. Their attitude, their approach to work, their ability to deal with people, is really amazing, and so encouraging for the future. Study teaches them transferrable skills: they’re learning how to research, how to organise and present their ideas, and how to juggle priorities and meet deadlines. 

It’s also great for the atmosphere within our company and the whole working culture to have that influx of youth and vitality. It’s been really invigorating. And for our mentors, there’s huge job satisfaction. It’s great to be able to share their knowledge and experience and very rewarding to see how the youngsters respond. I think having that one-to-one attention from a more senior colleague really encourages them to raise their game.

I think if more employers knew what they stood to gain from sponsored study, more of them would do it. It’s well worth the investment in terms of both time and money. There are so many young people out there that have a lot to offer and are committed to making something of themselves – they just need an opportunity.

Would you say that sponsoring students has enhanced productivity? If so, how?
NW: It is my belief sponsoring students has enhanced our productivity. Having a more balanced team in terms of age and experience working on projects together means that tasks can be allocated more effectively and engineers can work with others to deliver designs more quickly. Inevitably, there is a need to make sure work is checked more thoroughly but this is more than outweighed by the benefits of getting the trainees to take it on in the first place. For us, one of the keys to making this work in practice has to been to make sure we invest time at the outset in giving a detailed briefing, making sure trainees understand up front what is needed from them and how to approach a particular task.

How do you monitor performance?
NW: Our apprentices go through a structured induction, then have fortnightly sessions with their mentor. We review their performance in the workplace every six months, and their performance at college is monitored regularly. All our apprentices keep a training log as well.

What kind of support do you provide for students in the workplace?
NW: All our students are partnered with a mentor. They have fortnightly study sessions together and mentors will also check that their portfolio of evidence meets the criteria set by the Engineering Council before going out for external assessment. They’re also there to help them get used to the world of work: that can be a big adjustment in itself for a young person who’s come straight from school. Mentors come from within the existing workforce, and we provide in-house training for them. We’re tapping into a long-standing tradition in engineering, where the generation above encourages and supports those that are up and coming. Now we’re starting to see apprentices from the early years mentoring those in later groups, which is really encouraging.

How do you manage the impact of staff being away from the workplace, and support them in combining work and study?
NW: I think communication and clarity are the important things. Our students are on day release. Everyone knows they’re at college on a certain day, and so work patterns fit round that. I think there are benefits all round – they come into the office from college energised and enthused, and the same is true the other way round as well: the theoretical learning feeds into the practical work, and vice versa. We offer them time off for study too, if they need it, and they can use the computers and other facilities here in the office.

To what extent would you say sponsored study has met your expectations?
NW: In terms of the progress our young people are making I would say it has far exceeded my initial hopes for the scheme. The apprentices have integrated smoothly into the workplace and their academic results are very encouraging. The day release format seems to work well as a balance between workplace and academic studies.

What challenges do you see ahead?
NW: Initially, our apprenticeships were very much focused in London, but recently we have been working to roll the initiative out to our other regional offices. That partly depends on ensuring we have the resources, but it also depends on colleges being able to deliver the right courses and meet the necessary standards. It’s a question of supply and demand. 

As awareness and understanding of apprenticeships grows among businesses, so colleges are starting to respond. The tide is definitely turning. 

Another area we need to address is ensuring that students are properly equipped for the transition to higher study. Maths is a particular area of concern. In some cases students are finding it challenging to make the transition to an HND or degree course. That’s something we’re discussing with our partners at South Thames and LSBU. We need to find a way to close that gap and make sure students are not disadvantaged at that crucial stage of their education.

And what opportunities?
NW: Part of the Technician Apprenticeships Consortium’s (TAC) remit is to encourage more young people from under-represented groups to come into engineering, and that’s something that’s hugely important to us. We’re working particularly hard at the moment to increase our intake of female students. In the first couple of years, we had no female students, but that’s changing. Those students then act as powerful role models and encourage more girls to consider a career in engineering. We go out and do talks in schools, and when candidates come in for interview we give them the opportunity to talk to the other apprentices. One of our female apprentices, Caitlyn Stuart, has just won the Women in Science and Engineering Apprentice of the Year award, out of a field of 400 entrants from high profile companies including Land Rover and Jaguar. It’s an amazing achievement.

How is LSBU supporting you in your plans for the future?
NW: By working more closely with LSBU, we feel we can better influence the syllabus and draw on the University’s experience to develop our youngsters. There is a move towards ensuring that courses and work experience are better integrated, so that learning is more joined up, and LSBU seem keen to help out in this respect.

Find out more about our Building Services Engineering courses and workforce development at LSBU.

 
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