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Interview: Why Monarch values apprenticeships

Monarch Group is one of the UK’s leading travel groups, employing around 3,000 people and operating an airline, tour operations and aircraft engineering. The company has been using apprenticeships for over 40 years, and, as part of this year’s Apprenticeship Week, we caught up with group chief executive, Andrew Swaffield, to find why they’re so integral to its people development plans...

Why are apprenticeships a key part of your talent strategy?

Apprenticeships are a crucial way for us to develop the critical skills required now and in the long-term. They give people from all backgrounds the opportunity to get job-specific and transferrable skills that will contribute to their achievement in the workplace and the future success of our company. They’re a significant route through which we can ensure opportunities for progression are open to everyone in the business.

Our Monarch Aircraft Engineering apprenticeship scheme began in 1971, and has produced over 760 high-calibre engineers. At the moment we’ve got 46 apprentices going through the four-year scheme, which gets them to NVQ level 3. This year our intake is going from 18 to 22, but our commitment is not just about achieving numbers, we want to change how people view modern employment routes into our sector.

Embedding apprenticeships into our people strategies, talent management and career pathways provides a modern employment offer and a viable route into, and up through, our business for both new and existing employees.

We’re very proud of the progress we’ve made so far with our existing apprenticeships, however we appreciate that there is always a lot more we can do, which is why we’re determined to build and implement an apprenticeship strategy that will strengthen our people’s skills whilst furthering the diversity of our workforce. We really want to be a leader in our sector and look at other areas as well as engineering.

What are the biggest benefits Monarch has experienced from using apprenticeships?

The main priority is to ensure we have sufficient skilled people coming into the business - that’s the most basic requirement.

Apprenticeships also help us develop a core of people who have a very deep understanding of our business and a very strong cultural link to the company. We tend to find that people who go through the apprenticeship scheme are very loyal and very high-calibre in terms of their work product and output. Although it’s not practical for us to employ all our engineers this way, we certainly regard it as one of the most successful routes for bringing people in.

We also increasingly find that we’re recruiting people later on in life who’ve worked for us earlier as apprentices, and then come back to us. This is a big benefit, as we know that someone who has been through our apprenticeship is pretty fool proof in terms of their likelihood to fit in with our culture and work ethic.

It also helps boost our brand as an employer – people can see that we’re a serious company that’s willing to invest in people over the long-term.  I think that helps to grow your credibility as an employer when people are comparing you to competitors.

Do you have examples of success stories with your apprenticeship programme?

We’ve got large number of people who joined us as apprentices and are still with us after many years, progressing into management and leadership roles across the business.

The best example is probably our head of engineering, Lee Burgess. He was originally put in touch with our apprenticeship scheme by a family friend, who still works for us, and who took him for a tour of one of the hangars.

After completing his apprenticeship in 1991, Lee worked his way up through the engineering business, including 14 years as an aircraft engineer, looking after a team of mechanics as a leading hand, and roles in Munich, Cyprus and Florida.

In 2015 we made him head of engineering, and he now oversees a number of departments. It’s his responsibility to ensure that all our aircraft remain airworthy, so it’s a very responsible role with a large number of employees. That’s probably the best example of somebody going right through the system, from the beginning to virtually the top.

What do you see as the benefit of the new apprenticeship standards?

I think the main benefit is that they are led and driven by employers, which gives us the ability to form trailblazers for standards that are specific to our industry.

Pauline Prow, our chief people officer, is the chair of the Aviation Industry Skills Board (AISB). I also sit on the board of People 1st and through the AISB we bring companies across our sector together and explore the opportunities we’ve got for improving the standards. We’ve recently set up special interest groups to explore the opportunity of forming apprenticeship standards for both cabin crew and pilots.

I also think that the removal of age restrictions, and previous qualifications not being a barrier any more, will give us access to people who want to get professional development later in life as well.

What is your business strategy to approaching the apprenticeship levy to ensure you get a return on investment?

Growing our existing scheme is the main way in which we’ll ensure that we can turn this levy to our advantage. It’s worth reminding ourselves that we’ve been running a successful apprenticeship scheme for 46 years, bringing in 14-16 apprentices every year on average. We’re already committed to growing that to 22 this year, and we plan further growth as part our strategy.

We recently held a two-day workshop with People 1st, where we engaged other areas of our business, including our airline commercial teams, finance, human resources and our tour operator division, to explore opportunities for wider professional development using the apprenticeship standards across the whole business.

We plan to have several apprenticeship programmes, including IT, to maximise workforce capability through building our own people, and bringing in a diverse pipeline of talent to meet our existing and future skills gaps. We will focus on developing a breadth of experience and depth of expertise through these apprenticeships, from entry level right through to higher level and also degree level apprenticeships. These will be open to new recruits and also existing employees as an opportunity to progress, retrain or learn new skills.

By doing all of those things we believe we can ensure that the levy is not a cost to our business, but rather an investment that will drive us to even greater heights. Personally, I’m a great believer in apprenticeships and I think it’s a very positive opportunity for us.

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