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Beyond mentoring: social support structures for young Australian carpentry apprentices

By John Buchanan, Catherine Raffaele, Nick Glozier and Aran Kanagaratnam Research report 2 August 2016 978 1 925173 54 3


With growing recognition of the extent to which work, mental health and wellbeing intersect, it is important to understand the critical role effective apprenticeship support arrangements play in helping Australia's youth make the transition from school to work. This study considers how pastoral care, mentoring and other forms of social support contribute to apprenticeships. In particular, the forms of support provided to young carpentry apprentices by some of Australia's leading construction firms and training organisations were investigated. It finds the best and most effective support for mental health and wellbeing is informal. While these can be the most difficult forms of support to explicitly and formally nurture, the report and good practice guide offer ideas on how informal bases of support can be encouraged to flourish.


About the research

This study is an exploration of the work-based social support structures associated with the transition from school to work for young people and how these could, potentially, contribute to better mental health and wellbeing outcomes. Research and policy concerning young adults and mental health tends to focus on ‘at risk’ individuals; this project, however, examines more broadly the important role of the workplace as a potential site of social support. It also draws on and contributes to broader debates about the apprenticeship model in Australia and notions of vocational development. The findings have been generated from a literature review and eight case studies involving both small and large organisations across some of Australia’s leading firms and group training organisations, specifically those with apprentice completion rates sitting at around 90%, well above the industry average. The report identifies the forms of social support successfully provided to young carpentry apprentices.

Key messages

  • Informal and peer-based mentoring practices play a significant role in supporting the mental health and wellbeing of apprentices and are often superior to those provided under a formal mentoring arrangement. The paradox is that these practices are hard to ‘formally’ nurture; however, employers can create environments in which they can succeed.
  • The essential ingredient is a quality approach to vocational development, which both large and small organisations can foster by:
    • valuing the time required for both on- and off-the-job training
    • ensuring supervisors and peers recognise that skills development takes time and requires active nurturing on the job
    • placing high value on sharing skills and teamwork
    • respecting and placing importance on time for innovation
    • encouraging apprentices to tap into wider support networks
    • ensuring access to both formal and informal mentoring.
  • Creating informal support structures works best when the arrangements are integral, not incidental, to the business model of the organisation. In other words, social sustainability is seen as inseparable from the strategies necessary for economic success.
  • Formal mentoring plays an important role, and works well when mentors are formally separate from the employer and the workplace. It should be a complement to, and not replace, effective apprenticeship support arrangements.

Dr Craig Fowler
Managing Director, NCVER

Executive summary

This research focused on how apprenticeships, at their best, provide extensive social support for young people. It draws on, and contributes to, debates about workforce (and especially vocational) development in contemporary Australia. It also contributes to the growing literature on social support and health, especially the role that work could play in improving the mental health of young people. Specifically, it identifies the forms of social support provided to young carpentry apprentices. Findings have been generated from eight case studies, which included smaller organisations and some of Australia’s leading construction firms and group training organisations (GTOs).

The findings were as follows:

  • Formal mentoring arrangements were common. Structured mentor-like arrangements, based primarily on in-house apprenticeship coordinators and group training field officers, were in place in most of the organisations studied.
  • Systemic informal support embedded in trade cultures of vocational and social development was significant. Mentoring arrangements are not the whole, or even the most important form of, social support provided to apprentices. Highly customised support (both professional and personal) was provided to all apprentices through informal arrangements associated with the vocational development of young people on the job.
  • Support arrangements were integral — not incidental — to organisational business models. These comprehensive systems of support did not function as isolated features of the companies studied. That is, they were not social luxuries provided by firms because they had a distinctive moral preference; rather, these strong social support arrangements were integral to distinct business models — those where social sustainability was regarded as inseparable from the strategies necessary for economic success.
  • Apprenticeship models of support can extend to occupations above and below trades level.Below trades level (that is, certificate II and below skill equivalent), quasi-apprenticeship support arrangements functioned to nurture social inclusion. Above trades level (that is, certificate IV and above skill equivalent), they functioned as integral elements of firms’ leadership and management development systems.
  • Quasi-apprenticeship support arrangements for occupations below trades level required additional stakeholders and resources.The ability to be more ‘socially inclusive’ (that is, ‘reaching down’ to at-risk groups) and comprehensive in the support provided was a function of increasing the range of stakeholders involved in sharing the risks and costs associated with supporting individuals at risk of labour market failure or exclusion. That is, additional resources from outside need to be made available to organisations providing support for personal and professional development to the un- and underemployed, as well as those outside the workforce but wanting to join it.
  • External program-based mentoring arrangements can complement (but not replace) effective apprenticeship support arrangements.Specialised external mentoring programs can complement effective support arrangements; they cannot make up for deficiencies in vocational development arrangements.

Policy implications

This research shows that the best and most effective support for apprentices is informal, which is, by definition, difficult to explicitly and ‘formally’ nurture; this is a conundrum that needs to be addressed if policy is to ensure that work-based arrangements provide quality social support to help young people successfully navigate the transition from school to work.

Even when internal support structures function well, sometimes arrangements that are formally separate from the workplace are required to provide a ‘safe environment’, where sensitive issues, such as those concerning mental health, can be discussed.

Given these findings, the best strategy would appear to be the promotion of an ecology in which strong informal bases of support can flourish. On the basis of this study, the ecology that most obviously meets this need is the expansive variant of the apprenticeship model of vocational development. Expansive workplace learning situations are those in which: time for on- and off-the-job training is valued; the transition to full and rounded participation in the trade is seen as a gradual process; and time for innovation is regarded as important. This approach is contrasted with restrictive workplace learning situations, where: virtually all training takes place on the job and there is little time for reflection; there is a preoccupation with making the transition to full competence arbitrarily quickly; and time for innovation is not respected.

An integral part of any programmatic intervention is the provision of mentors who are formally separate from the employer and the workplace — as a complement to (not a substitute for) expansive apprenticeship arrangements. Refining formal mentoring programs is of second-order importance. The key challenge is to revitalise and renew the apprenticeship model of vocational development by ensuring that apprenticeships are based in organisations providing expansive workplace learning situations.


Beyond mentoring: social support structures .pdf 1003.8 KB Download
Beyond mentoring: social support structures .docx 2.9 MB Download
Case study reports .pdf 717.7 KB Download
Case study reports .docx 196.2 KB Download

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