A step back; two steps forward
Atlas Copco is setting an industry benchmark through its new innovative Apprenticeship Training Scheme.
A year ago Barry Luttrell, 58, was preparing for an early retirement after more than 40 years in trades and teaching. He was persuaded to shelve his plans though when an opportunity came along to be involved in an apprentice training program he saw as exciting – for him as a program architect, and for participants – and one with the potential to re-set the best practice bar in the mining service industry.
Luttrell is well placed to judge this. He spent 14 years in Australia’s technical college system (TAFE) in New South Wales. Prior to that he worked in the equipment supply sector and mining industry after finishing an electrical trade apprenticeship. He was with building materials group Boral for about 13 years leading up to the time he thought he was about to retire.
“Then this came along and it looked really good,” he said.
“I saw this as an organisation that was looking to put in place best practice in the way training is delivered [and] best practice in the way a company developed its people.”
Atlas Copco Australia has launched an apprentice training scheme that may well become a template for recruitment and retention of generations X, Y and “i” in the mining/construction supply sector. Luttrell believes its appeal goes beyond these all-important demographics, but admits prospects of rapid skills and knowledge advancement along a competency-based assessment path, coupled with earlier, clearer career signposts and Atlas Copco’s global position as a technology-driven market leader, will hold special appeal for the youth market.
“The traditional apprenticeship is four years,” he said. “You go off to TAFE one day a week, and you pass your exams at TAFE and at the end of the year if you pass TAFE you go on to the next stage of your apprenticeship, or the next year. It was always based on time and always four years.
“We’ve changed from years to stages, so years no longer count. Someone may finish all stages of the apprenticeship in three years, while someone else takes five.
“The key is demonstrated reliable application of competency in the workplace.
“In this apprenticeship we also expect the apprentices to be productive in three months. Traditionally they’ve probably spent the first 12 months following the tradesmen around, carrying the toolbox, sweeping floors and generally doing mundane work.
“Ours is a flexible apprenticeship, it’s competency based, there are four stages and each stage has a basket of competencies required and when the basket of competencies has been assessed and there’s reliable application in the workplace, then the person progresses on to the next stage.
“In the first three months we are targeting the competencies required to get the apprentices up and productive quickly and effectively. So the first group of competencies they’ll do are those that will enable them to be productive.”
Atlas Copco’s first dedicated training and development manager in Australia believes the merit-based assessment and reward approach “fits with Gen X and Y’s values”.
“They don’t want to hang around for four years to finish an apprenticeship if they’ve completed their training,” Luttrell said. “To say to a person your training program is as long as you need to make it provides them with the flexibility to say, okay I’m an intelligent young person – or older person as the case may be – let’s get on with it.”
Atlas Copco is aiming to more than double its service/maintenance apprentice intake this year. Luttrell said the initial group of invitees was a mix of younger people who had some TAFE course exposure, and more mature individuals with experience in industry. Several females were among the youth contingent.
“We’ve recruited for quality rather than quantity and we will take a lesser number unless we’ve got the right people,” he said.
The apprentices will undertake a customised TAFE program, developed exclusively for Atlas Copco by a Perth TAFE college for national implementation. They will also gain experience at different company sites around the country. The flexibility of the Atlas Copco apprenticeship program was a key selling point in a competitive market. The company’s intake group would also be well paid by industry standards and, because of the emphasis on fast-tracking trainee progress, individuals would find themselves better positioned to move into high-paying jobs sooner than they would in other programs.
“Our apprentices are probably going to be three years hands-on on the equipment, then spend time as qualified technicians, then have the option of slotting straight into product specialist roles. With professional management knowledge and experience, they can progress further from there.
“It’s a seamless career structure on offer. It’s interesting that we have attracted a couple of people who currently hold a university degree, or a portion of a uni degree, because they see the career path.
“They also see a company with global reach, and one that has displayed technological leadership and strong growth in recent years.”
Luttrell believes a targeted apprentice retention rate of 80% or more can be achieved. He cited faster trainee development as a positive in this regard: it gave the company increased scope to elevate staff within the organisation more readily.
“As soon as our people finish the apprenticeship component they will have an opportunity to advance to four different service technician levels, so there’s a continuous career path.
“It effectively means that if someone is looking to headhunt these guys the competitor will have to pay a premium to attract them because they’re going to be looking two-to-three years ahead and seeing where they will be and matching that up against the alternative path being offered by another organisation, one which perhaps doesn’t offer a career path.”
Luttrell said “It’s basically about getting the best people, and reducing the time that it takes to get them from the entry level to being a productive member of the workplace,” he said.
“The other thing we’re doing is participating in school days in the senior school system, because what we want to do is position Atlas Copco as an employer of first choice for intelligent young people.”