Another successful Outward Bound adventure with the Thales apprentices

Thales apprentices

In June this year, management and leadership L&D consultant Nick Jordan took another group of Thales apprentices to the Lake District in partnership with the Outward Bound Trust, following the success of the previous programme in November last year. The apprentices spent five days partaking in a range of experiential learning activities, from mountain rescue exercises to gorge scrambling and orienteering, as well as spending time socialising and bonding as a group. As always, there were plenty of opportunities for reflection in order to embed the learning.

“There were activities from minute one,” says Jordan. “As soon as Paul Watson, Thales’ VP of Operations, had kicked off the proceedings, we got the apprentices outside doing site orientation and teambuilding games. Within about an hour we had some of them jumping off a bridge into a river.”

Apprentice Lynne Graham was one of the first to take the plunge. “I was not expecting that,” she says. “Especially not an hour after we got off the bus! I’m not great with heights, so I was really taken out of my comfort zone, but I managed to overcome that fear throughout the week because I didn’t want to let my team down.”

Developing skills  

The idea behind the programme is to help the apprentices develop the skills that don’t necessarily come naturally in their everyday roles, as Jim Finlayson, Director of Employee Relations and Engagement at Thales UK, explains.

“When you receive training on an apprenticeship it generally revolves around technical ability,” he says. “We wanted to complement those technical skills with behavioural traits such as leadership and people skills, and the Outward Bound programme gives us the opportunity to do that.”

Spending a week in the Lake District together also provides the apprentices with a chance to build a strong network of peers that will stay with them as they progress through the business. This foundation is vital for them at this early stage in their career, and allows them to grow with a strong support framework.

“The programme establishes a community of apprentices and enables them to network throughout the UK businesses,” says Finlayson. “This is particularly important for the apprentices, because unlike grads, for example, they don’t get to come together very often.”

Systems apprentice David Charles certainly agrees with that sentiment. “Getting to know my workmates was one of the most valuable things about the week for me,” he says. “We used to come in and do our own thing, but now we can’t shut up and we’re constantly calling each other!”

“It was great being able to socialise after the tasks and get to know people from other sites,” adds Graham. “That’s not something we’d have been able to do without the programme.”

apprentices in the Lake DistrictHuge changes in the group

The programme itself was a huge success, and had a significant effect on all of the apprentices who attended, as testified to by the apprentices themselves, and also by the non-apprentice Thales staff who attended the week and observed the activities and presentations.

“I have seen the programme have a huge impact on the apprentices involved,” says Finlayson. “You can see a real, demonstrable difference between how they were at the beginning of the programme and how they have grown throughout the week, particularly when it comes to interpersonal skills and confidence.”

Jordan seconds that thought: “There was a massive difference in confidence levels by the end of the programme,” he says. “Not just in their own ability, but in their ability to mix and talk with people and trust others.

“One of the highlights was how the apprentices learnt to quickly adapt to new and changing situations, one example of which was when they did the mountain rescue exercise and had to merge their teams, suddenly having to work with different people,” continues Jordan. “There was some inevitable turmoil, but they handled it brilliantly in the end.

Jordan also commented on how well the apprentices presented what they’d learnt to the rest of the group and some of the Thales directors at the end of the week. “I was really impressed with the quality of the presentations,” he says. “Every single team member got stuck in and did something, without much prompting.”

The apprentices themselves echoed Jordan’s and Finlayson’s thoughts on the week, with many of them describing significant learning experiences they had during their five days spent in the Lake District.

“I learnt that no matter what setbacks you encounter, the task at hand can always be achieved,” says Stephen Gallagher, a year two business apprentice who attended the programme. “If something went wrong on one of the activities, there tended to be a lack of focus and the team would fall away from the task in hand. But we learnt to come up with a contingency plan, re-motivate the team to refocus and complete the challenge.”

“I learnt how to work better as part of a team, and how important it is to ask other people their opinion instead of just doing what you want,” says Charles.

“Seeing the behaviours of an efficient team, and what an efficient team looks like, was really useful” adds manufacturing apprentice Brian Locke. “I learnt how efficient teams can complete tasks much more quickly.”

Taking the learning back to work                   

Clearly the programme had a huge impact on the apprentices involved, but how will the skills and behaviours they acquired translate back into the workplace and their everyday professional lives? Manufacturing apprentice Jamie Wright believes it has given him the confidence to speak his mind in front of larger groups.

“I was never confident speaking in a big group before,” says Wright. “But after this week I feel like I’ll be able to communicate with my colleagues better. In team briefings, for example, I feel like I can step up and get my point across clearly to the group.”

“You learn to work well with a team,” added fourth year apprentice Ross Liddell. “But you also learn about your own characteristics, so back at work I can use the knowledge of my weak points to get put in situations where I can develop them, and now that I am aware of my strengths I can better utilise them to help my team.”

“We also learnt how to look out for each other and communicate better,” adds Charles. “That is definitely something we can take back to work.”

The importance of developing young talent

So why are programmes like this so important? Finlayson explains that it is all about securing a future skilled workforce, and that it isn’t simply down any single organisation to achieve that.

“UK employers have a collective responsibility to develop young talent,” he says. “If they don’t, then who is going to? The industry is changing, and unless we all put the work in to develop a future talent pool it simply won’t exist.”

By giving young people confidence in themselves and their ability to do well within your organisation, you empower them to make a greater contribution. Their ability to be successful has a positive knock-on effect on the organisation, and ultimately the wider economy.

“When people from the business come and talk to you as a human being, you start to realise there is no need to be intimidated by hierarchy when it comes to getting your point across or seeking opportunities,” says Finlayson. “These apprentices have all gained more of a voice, now, because they’ve seen that people are genuinely interested in what they have to say.”

More to come

In terms of any future Outward Bound programmes with the apprentices, Finlayson is confident that Thales will continue to run them.

“We will definitely continue to develop our apprentices in this way, focusing on areas such as team building and leadership skills,” he says. “We’ve got a really strong pipeline of apprentices coming through the business, now, with a huge amount of support for these development interventions from the top of the organisation, right up to CEO level. We see apprentices as the future of our organisation, so we need to keep replenishing that pipeline.”

The next Outward Bound programme will be running again in November this year, with a strong focus on leadership development. Keep your eyes on our blog and social media channels for further updates.

What role do apprentices play in your organisation? Read about the rise of apprenticeships in UK businesses in Enhance magazine.