Emma Leech, early careers manager at Howdens, talks to Nicola Hanley about the company’s award-winning apprentice scheme and explains why it’s so important to the business.
When KBBFocus attended the opening of trade kitchen and joinery supplier Howdens' new multimillion-pound factory extension at its existing site in Howden, Yorkshire, at the end of January, the passion and professionalism of its employees really stood out. As a company, Howdens prides itself on investing in its people and since 2010 it has consistently been listed in The Sunday Times’ top 25 Best Big Companies to work for. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence then that 2010 was also the year Howdens formally introduced its apprentice scheme.
“We’d had apprentices in our business for a number of years, starting fairly informally with older schemes such as the youth training,” says Emma Leech, early careers manager at Howdens. “But it wasn’t until 2010 that we’ve had a more formal programme.”
It has evolved over time and now offers five key apprenticeship roles in Howdens’ depots along with a fast-track to management scheme. There are currently around 600 apprentices on the programme, which has grown substantially over the last couple of years, with 59 people enrolled on the kitchen sales designer course. “We recruit the most apprentices into warehouse positions but the kitchen sales designer role is really popular with candidates, particularly when we’re at career shows. The idea of being in design and creating customers’ dream kitchens is really appealing to students,” says Leech.
Generally it takes around 12-15 months to complete the programme, although something more specialist such as IT, engineering or manufacturing could take up to four years. And about 60-65% of those that start the programme complete it, which is around the national average. “That is something we’re striving to improve,” says Leech. “But of those that complete the programme, around 80% choose to stay with the business and go into permanent roles. So currently one in 12 of our staff started as an apprentice and that shows how over the years, apprentices have become a really valuable part of the workforce and key to the growth of the business. And the benefit is that the people who are now bringing in apprentices have been there themselves so they can really relate to those coming on the programme.”
For Leech, one of the things that sets the Howdens apprenticeship scheme apart is the way it focuses on providing opportunities for people who may not get them elsewhere. “We don’t have a bias towards academia whatsoever. When we look to employ apprentices, we are looking for the right person with the right attitude and the will to succeed. And if we have depots that are in more disadvantaged areas, we’re providing opportunities for people in those areas and that’s how we grow the business. We want to reflect the communities that we serve. And that helps with the loyalty as well.”
Last year Howdens was named joint winner of the KBBFocus Apprenticeship Programme of the Year Award, which is something Leech says the company is very proud of. “That was specifically for our fast-track to management programme and our approach to bringing new talent into management roles. We are well regarded within the industry and our kitchen sales designer role is one of the only ones available to new starters. So a lot of people do offer these programmes for those already in their companies but we’re passionate about finding new talent and bringing it into the business.”
Committed to helping to bridge the industry-wide skills gap, Howdens has also partnered with EN:Able Futures, transferring up to 20% of its surplus apprenticeship levy credits to support people in other trade apprenticeships.
And what’s next for the scheme? “We’re looking at other early career opportunities such as work experience,” says Leech. “And we want to utilise our apprentice levy to up-skill more of the people that are already here to help existing staff continue their careers and develop more pathways. What we’re doing really works and it does support the growth of the business.”