The success of NI Water’s apprenticeship scheme

The success of NI Water’s apprenticeship scheme

The winner of CIPD Northern Ireland’s Best Apprenticeship Scheme Award is improving diversity and building a talent pipeline as well as supporting young people into jobs, says Lee Ann Panglea. 

Northern Ireland Apprenticeship Week this year is focused on Tomorrow’s Talent Today, highlighting the very essence of what apprenticeships offer organisations and individuals. And the positive impact of apprentices can be seen through the award-winning scheme run by Northern Ireland Water (NI Water). 

We know that organisations can recruit talent, gain different perspectives in the workplace, and train the next generation of skilled employees. And apprentices can learn skills at work and gain relevant qualifications that will set them up for a successful career. Apprenticeships are a great way to recruit talent and secure that all-important succession planning. 

Recent CIPD research has shown that overqualification is a growing issue in the UK, affecting job satisfaction and leading to poorer job quality for those who feel mismatched to their job. Career guidance and ensuring people are aware of all the options open to them is more important than ever. Apprenticeships offer a direct path for people to enter employment and gain the skills and qualifications needed for their chosen careers. 

NI Water won the Best Apprenticeship Scheme Award at the 2022 CIPD Northern Ireland HR Awards. The organisations’ Apprentice Academy has provided employment and training opportunities to over 80 people and has ambitious growth plans. The Academy is supporting the organisation’s inclusion and levelling-up ambitions and is helping to secure a talent pipeline. And for apprentices, it also offers the chance to enter their industry choice and begin work, alongside developing lifelong skills and qualifications. 

From strength to strength 

NI Water apprentice & graduate coordinator, Clodagh Patterson, outlines the benefits of the Apprentice Academy. “Our Apprentice Academy has grown from strength to strength over the last number of years, recently winning the CIPD award for Northern Ireland’s Best Apprenticeship Scheme 2022. We currently have 82 apprentices across disciplines in Water utilities, Cyber security, Civil engineering and Mechanical & electrical engineering, with ambitious growth and diversification plans in 2023.   

"Apprentices will be part of a diverse and inclusive workplace where everyone matters. We offer very competitive salaries, great work with fantastic training and career development opportunities". 19-year-old Emma Dunn, a cyber security higher-level apprentice, is finding her time as an apprentice with NI Water hugely positive, learning so much about how the organisation operates. “My experience so far in NI Water has been excellent. I never really knew much about the business beforehand - I just thought of the company as people who fix your drains and provide your water. My knowledge has grown in a variety of different areas, from how the water gets to your tap all the way to how important diversity and inclusion are to the business. 

"Since the day I started, I have felt very welcomed by my trainers, managers, fellow work colleagues, and part of the team.  

"I have gained important and useful skills within the Cyber security department and can see how my work benefits the business and the people of Northern Ireland. I would recommend this work path to anyone who is interested."

Policy needs 

On a public policy level, however, there is scope for change. CIPD members have told us that the apprenticeship system in NI can be confusing and difficult for employers to navigate at times. This can be especially true for smaller employers who lack the resources to spend time learning the system and may not know the breadth of apprenticeship frameworks or funding that is available. 

Organisations such as Work+ can help prospective employers find apprentices and assist with the recruitment process by linking potential apprentices to employers. Further development of this kind of support for both potential apprentices and organisations would benefit both employers and those searching for the right apprenticeship. 

In the CIPD’s 2022 Northern Ireland Manifesto we called for several changes that our members tell us would help to make the apprenticeship system easier to use and more productive, and we will continue to work with our key stakeholders and partners to lobby for these changes which include: 

  • Making targeted apprenticeship recruitment incentives permanent 
  • Introducing a ring-fenced training fund for Apprenticeship Levy payers, and 
  • Rebalancing public funding towards demand-led vocational routes, including apprenticeships. 

It is also important that our careers system helps young people understand and navigate the range of vocational pathways available to them. Although, with companies like NI Water developing attractive and award-winning apprenticeship schemes, linked to rewarding careers, understanding choices is only the first step. Emma’s experience highlights that apprenticeships are a genuine alternative to traditional academic education. 

Further reading

CIPD One Million Chances