With the goal of achieving gender equality by 2025 and with only 2 per cent female representation in maintenance roles (Australia 2019), BHP, one of the world’s largest mining companies, embarked on a challenge to radically change its approach to learning and attract a workforce where non-traditional and new to industry employees would feel welcome and ready to learn a trade.

Traditional learning and development practices needed to be challenged and required leaders to think differently about their biases to hire and train. Four years on, the business and employees are benefitting from this bold change and have created a highly inclusive learning environment delivering tangible business benefits and social value.

What does Inclusive Learning mean?

Traditional trade apprenticeships have been in existence for hundreds of years typically targeted at young employees, craft or trade, based in the field, on the job and supervised by a skilled trade person or technical leader.  Traditional apprentice programs see individual learners placed in a team of experienced practitioners. With the day to day production pressures experienced at site, this model isn’t always the most conducive learning environment for a new to industry employee, making it more difficult for the new learner to experiment with new skills, resulting in lower engagement and retention rates. Being inclusive also means thinking about how to make someone feel welcome supported and valued. How do we best support apprenticeship learning and create an environment where individual learning styles are truly embraced and new learners feel confident whilst learning new skills and a new industry? 

For BHP, we created immersive learning centres, supported by dedicated trainers and leaders, whose only production target is to support learner’s fulltime for the duration of their trade. , It also provides different learning methodologies, technologies, and techniques where each individual can access the learning that makes meaning of the trade and skill development for them personally. Dedicated learning centres embrace social learning with new to industry learners, in an environment surrounded by other new starters. 

This brings a great sense of comfort, support, and team comradery which translates into a psychological safe learning space. Learning technologies include augmented and virtual reality to provide a rich learning experience focused on safety and skill building, whilst also providing hands on workshops to apply their skills. Accessibility to different learning modalities ensures all learners feel supported and valued for the way they best learn. This is a significant investment however the benefits of enabling apprentices to learn most effectively for them personally, ensuring that the learning has meaning and purpose and the learner is more confident.  It has translated into high levels of retention and attracted a wider range of employees. The average age of apprentices in this model is 30 years of age, creating mid-career change opportunities for a diverse workforce.

Graduate, Amanda Martin, now working full time in maintenance at BHP called herself a mature age apprentice. “I joined because I was at a point in my life where my children were of an age they were semi self-sufficient, and I needed something for me,” she shared.

“Enjoying a new career was fulfilling for me. I thought, why not? Why not pursue that career?”

And now “everyday is a highlight and I am looking forward to many more years ahead of me.”

This inclusive learning environment will employ and develop another 2500 permanent apprentices and trainees over five years, and it is already achieving important diversity outcomes, with more than 83 per cent female representation. Completion rates within the program are also above 80 per cent and learners have reported feeling safe, engaged and enabled in perception surveys.

How can leaders and HR professionals support an Inclusive Learning Environment?

Think differently and walk in the shoes of the learners.  When we embarked on this change, we met with past and present learners, leaders and educational providers.  We asked each group to dream big and look for ways to design a different learning environment that would embrace diversity across all spectrums, and to challenge the traditional models and ways of work. We reminded ourselves what it felt like to be a new starter in an industry that requires safe and skilled employees and we tapped into the emotional and physical elements to drive an inclusive learning environment.

Time and space is required to develop new to industry learners – investing in the right learning space, the right level of supervisory and training support.  It also develops a variety of learning modalities to support individual’s learning styles will greatly increase the chances of providing an inclusive learning environment for new employees to thrive. In a tight skills market and constrained labour market, time and space is not always high on a leader’s agenda, but is worth the effort to deliver a better learning outcome for their new starters, and ultimately a more sustainable business outcome.