Apprentices are shaping our future – what we’ve learned so far

By Simon Birchall

November 2019

Apprentices now make up 15% of the workforce at Equals. With the scheme going from strength to strength, Director Simon Birchall explains how we went about setting up the programme, why they are such an important component of the wider business strategy, and the impact they have had on the company. Plus – meet some of our current apprentices!


Motivation and overcoming barriers

Looking back, it’s strange to think that we were apprehensive, even sceptical about setting up an apprenticeship programme. For one thing, we found the initial research difficult – it was a challenge to find out what we needed to do to get going. This needs to change because it’s a barrier to organisations that are tentative – like we were – about starting apprenticeship programmes.

We persevered for many reasons. We are lucky to work with some talented graduates, but more recently we found it was increasingly difficult to recruit top-quality uni leavers, which was a significant factor. More widely, we saw it as a crucial element of our strategy to secure the future of the company – today’s youngest employees are tomorrow’s professionals and business leaders. When they train right here with us as apprentices do, we have the opportunity to immerse them in our approach, values, projects and clients from the very start. When they qualify, they already know the business and our way of delivering excellence.

Setting up an apprentice scheme and recruitment

All apprenticeships are a partnership between the apprentice, the employer, the training institution and the accreditor, (in our case London South Bank University (LSBU) and the RICS). The government currently pays 95% of the course fees via the apprentice levy, with Equals making up the rest, and of course we pay a salary to the apprentices. 

Working with LSBU has been a big part of our scheme’s success. Their team understands how our scheme fits into our wider strategy, which makes for a better recruitment process. Their commitment to ensuring a cultural fit with the businesses they partner with is key to making the experience of the apprentices themselves the best it can be.

In terms of selection, competition is fierce! At our last intake, we had 250 applicants for three places, and it increases every year. We interview around 12 after LSBU has provided an anonymised shortlist. We find that all our interviewees are of a very high standard, so it often comes down to making a judgement on who will enjoy it the most.

All our apprentices attend LSBU one day a week, and we in turn provide experience, generally through project work. We make an important commitment to setting ‘real work’ from their very first day. Each apprentice has a line manager and a ‘buddy’ who acts as a mentor and a friendly listening ear.

Benefitting the business

The apprentices bring life, energy and a refreshing outlook to our team, and overall productivity has noticeably increased. They are digital natives and those skills are a great asset to us, as well as helping them to pick up new software incredibly fast. 

We have also found that our clients have been extremely positive about working with our apprentices, so we are continuing to involve them in client work and project meetings from very early on in their programmes. We find that the higher our expectations are, the better they perform.

Lessons learned

We’ve learned a lot – and very quickly! Our approach and the programme in general is evolving all the time as we become more experienced. It has required a different management style because they come in with a clean slate. This has been a great opportunity for some of our staff to work on their own management skills and we’re continually improving. The apprentices certainly keep us on our toes – they are very quick to learn and incredibly enthusiastic. 

Each year we’re getting better, with the settling in process improving. We are pleased to be ahead of the game compared to some others in the industry in terms of the commitment we have made and the volume we are taking on.

Mollie Evans,  Quantity Surveyor (MEP specialist), Year Two

Why did you choose a degree apprenticeship over a full-time degree course?

I’d figured out that I wanted to do quantity surveying, and after doing some research I realised that via an apprenticeship I could gain my knowledge through experience. Learning the theory is important of course, but applying it your job is a different matter.

I was also determined to gain my independence as soon as possible and an apprenticeship offered me the chance to become self-sufficient. On top of that, I knew for certain that I didn’t want to be studying full time any more.

What’s it like having a specialism?

I’ve found having the specialism very challenging – but I love that and like working under pressure. The subject matter really suits me because of my interest in maths and science. From day one there was a lot of terminology and acronyms that I had no knowledge of so it was a steep learning curve. I do get a lot of attention from the MEP specialists in the company and if they are not around, I find I am relied upon by colleagues for specialist knowledge – and I like having that responsibility. 

What opportunities have you had?

I have been able to expand my network easily and naturally, despite my young age, through working frequently at client offices. I already feel like I have my own contacts.

We get thrown in the deep end which you get used to quickly – it’s great for fast learning. I have done all kinds of work, including a site valuation, on my own already!

How does it match up to expectations?

At the start I was determined to get everything right straight way, but now I embrace the fact that I don’t know everything immediately. My line manager keeps pushing me with new things that I have never done before. I was helping with cost plans on my first day!

What do you like most about your apprenticeship?

I feel like I am making such good use of my time. I know graduates who are struggling to find a job, but I am already gaining lots of first-hand experience and putting everything into practice.


Sam Jorquera, Project Manager, Year One

Why did you choose a degree apprenticeship over a full-time degree course?

Debt was a big factor for me. I considered university and would probably have done a business degree, but I was concerned that even with that, I wouldn’t have the guarantee of a job at the end. It made a lot of sense to start working right away while training at the same time.

Doing the degree apprenticeship was important to me because I wanted that balance of work and study – with the full qualification at the end of it.

What attracted you to the industry?

My family runs a business in the construction industry, so I always knew I wanted to be involved in building. I did some labouring at weekends for my uncles when I was at school and loved it. I probably drove them mad with all my questions!

This was a great foundation, but I found I didn’t know as much about the construction industry as I thought so I did some research, including going to an RICS employers meeting to find out more. They had client side and contractor side employers there which really helped. The more I found out, the more I thought this would be a good fit for me.

What do you think apprentices bring to the business?

I think businesses benefit from the perspective of apprentices. We are so new to everything and ask all kinds of questions – and I think that can lead the business to consider their challenges and ingrained habits in different ways. We can shake things up a bit!

What opportunities have you had?

Despite my being the first project management apprentice at Equals it’s been really well organised and I have a line manager and a mentor who are very supportive. I’m carrying out all kinds of tasks on my own, and I have been in project progress meetings with clients from my first week. I’m already spending lots of time on-site. Being chucked in the deep end straight out of school is exciting and rewarding especially when you pick up something that was difficult at first.

What does the future hold for you?

My long-term goal – beyond completing my apprenticeship and becoming chartered with the RICS – is to become a key decision maker in an organisation like Equals – or even set up my own business. In the meantime, I’d like to manage a project by myself.

I also love to travel and when I qualify, I think it would be a great opportunity to put my project management skills to good use and volunteer on a charity project in a less developed country.

What was your support like at school?

My school gave us good support and provided lots of information about apprenticeships, but in my opinion it’s up to the individual to take control of their future.

I would recommend to people still at school to start early, put the work in and get used to writing applications and doing telephone interviews. It’s an important skill and something you aren’t used to when you are still at school. You have to learn how to prove yourself in an interview – and build yourself up mentally to take rejection.


What’s next for us?

We’re excited to be in the third year of our scheme already and look forward to our first degree qualifiers in the summer of 2022. A year beyond that, we can expect those people to achieve chartership. 

They are central to our future and we hope they will want to continue their careers with us because we see huge potential in them all. Many of them are certainly headed for senior roles. We are committed to supporting them through their careers and look forward to watching them rise through the ranks.