How Richard Kirk is changing the apprenticeships narrative in Northern Ireland

Blogs 5 Sep 2022

From school leavers to career changers, FSB member Richard Kirk is connecting employers with aspiring apprentices in Northern Ireland through Workplus, a membership organisation which includes an apprenticeships marketplace. He shares how simplifying the system and collaboration can help small businesses to find new talent.

FSB member Richard Kirk is the CEO and Founder of Workplus, a Belfast-based company helping to grow the apprenticeship culture and connect employers with aspiring apprentices. Richard is passionate about supporting and promoting apprenticeships to help businesses build their workforce. He’s helped over 300 people into apprenticeships in sectors such as manufacturing, construction and software development.  

How did you get to where you are today? 

Initially I trained as a civil engineer and worked at the Institute of Civil Engineers (ICE). This allowed me to stay connected with infrastructure and construction while participating in projects that helped the industry to collaborate, such as career inspiration programmes. I think that was the origin of the apprenticeships work that I do now because I was trying to help an industry that was struggling to find good people.  

I left my job at ICE to start Workplus in 2016 and we’re now working with over 60 employers in Northern Ireland. We’re helping them to think differently about apprenticeships and make the process easier for both applicants and employers. 

Why do you think apprenticeships an important part of the skills landscape? 

If you think of an apprenticeship as a skills product, there’s no other product that has so much buy-in from so many people. An apprenticeship connects government, training providers, the employer and the aspiring apprentice. Apprenticeships are more than training opportunities with a bit of work experience - it’s a job from the outset. The employer also gets to draw people in from a wider talent pool. We’re involved in this space because we can see the value it brings to our economy and society. 

Could you share some examples of apprentices and employers that you’ve connected through Workplus? 

We need to show society who apprentices are because we see both school leavers and career changers starting apprenticeships through Workplus. We're trying to change the narrative and language about what an apprenticeship is.  

Recently we had a woman in her mid-thirties who was looking to go back into work or education now that her children were a bit older, so she started a software developer apprenticeship. As she was retraining, she already had a lot of transferable skills like teamwork and creativity that a younger apprentice would need to develop. 

When it comes to school leavers, you might have someone who only has a handful of GCSEs but can enter a sector they didn’t think they’d be able to because employers have lowered the entry point. Many employers ask for a degree with a certain amount of experience, which is a high bar for so many people. The companies we’re working with are lowering that entry point, not in terms of quality but with the qualifications you need to get into the sector. We also see students who are high academic achievers choosing the degree apprenticeship route. 

What do you think is the biggest challenge for small businesses looking at apprenticeships? 

The system is made very complicated for employers and we’re trying to simplify that. There’s a sense that they need to jump through lots of hoops. Bringing employers together into a network helps them to learn from each other. We have small businesses talking to HR managers in larger organisations about how to develop a mentoring programme. The shared space that we’ve created has been beneficial for overcoming the barriers.  

At Workplus, we’re trying to help employers to understand what apprenticeships are, which types are available, and how to hire them. One of the challenges is that only 9% of employers in Northern Ireland hire apprentices. The main reason for this is because they’re micro-businesses. Hiring an apprentice could be a significant risk in terms of having the time to mentor them, making sure they get the right experience to complete the apprenticeship, and having the means to employ someone at a junior level.  

The new Flexi-Job Apprenticeships initiative in England, where an apprentice is employed by an intermediary and is placed at different businesses during the apprenticeship, is an example of how we could involve more micro-businesses and help them to understand the benefits too.  

What are your aspirations for Workplus?  

We want to continue to build and grow the Workplus community and encourage companies to catch the vision for apprenticeships. We’ve built a marketplace-style platform which we believe has relevance beyond Northern Ireland for cluster organisations who are looking to stimulate the apprenticeship system and make it easy to connect employers and apprentices.  

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