Training in smaller companies – how and why we do it

An overview of AAL's approach to training by Natasha Powers (Senior Manager)

Formal training is perhaps seen as the preserve of the larger, more established archaeological unit able to put considerable resources into training schemes and have staff specifically dedicated to implementing them. However, working for a smaller company can provide better opportunities for consistent mentoring and for a diverse training experience.

On Wednesday 20th April, AAL contributed to a session organised by the Diggers Forum at the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists (CIfA) annual conference, entitled ‘The skills gap: training for competence in archaeology’.

AAL has undergone pretty rapid growth. In January 2014 there were 14 staff and by the end of last year we had 45 staff, including three trainees. Training plans are put in place for staff to progress and to change direction, for example into geophysics or archives, but this post focuses on our ‘entrance level’ training plan.

So why is training important? Well, with increasing workload and larger jobs we needed more people; not only did we need to increase capacity but also flexibility. Training gives us the chance to grow skills in-house which are tailored to company methods and needs. Like many archaeological companies out there we had recruitment problems – especially for fixed term roles. The problem wasn’t numbers of applicants but that very few had the experience we were after. Partly it was about need, and partly about gaining the confidence to do it. We’re involved in community archaeology projects, site open days, National Trust training days and short-term university teaching, so surely we ought to have the skills in-house to train other archaeologists? Most of all, training the next generation is, as one of our recent trainees put it, a good thing to do!

“A lot of companies want minimum experience that might be hard to get even with volunteer work and the like, so obviously a scheme that trains less experienced archaeologists is a good thing.”

It was important to us that we weren’t playing lip service to training as a way of paying people less, so we decided to keep the training plan short and sweet – 3 months should be enough to get a good grounding in commercial archaeology and to get people with some pre-exiting skills and experience to PCIfA level (Practitioner – the first level of competence defined by CIfA).

The training programme is aimed at people who have genuine interest and aptitude but no commercial experience, though we have found that applicants sometimes do have this, just not the amount most commercial jobs require, so they couldn’t get started on the job ladder. We wanted a way to get people on to that ladder and to keep them moving up through the company, gaining experience and moving to permanent roles over time.

Josh training the team in flint identification

Josh training the team in flint identification

The company ethos is very much that everyone should learn the basics of everything and that knowledge and skills are shared. We’re not heavily departmentalised so staff get to carry out GPS and TST survey, use GIS to produce illustrations for reports, assist with geophysical survey, take their own site photographs and so on – it is possible that this might go as we grow further, but we will try and hold on to this as much as is possible.

Trainees get a formal plan with tasks to sign off and each task has an appointed person to do the sign off. Over three months. The standard plan involves 20 days of fieldwork, 10 days in the finds and archives, eight days post-excavation work and five days survey training, plus time for an induction, basic introduction to standards, H&S and so on. The tasks are tied to National Occupational Standards.

It is not without its problems. The level of training dependant on and workload – one of our recent trainees didn’t dig on a ‘normal’ site for three months as we were working on the sampling of a the top of a paleosol for Mesolithic flints, and this meant that she hadn’t experienced stratigraphic recording. It’s vital to keep balance on site so there are enough experienced staff to support the trainees, and because we’re relatively small, the training experience is also dependent on the availability of particular staff. Good training also relies on good feedback from site supervisors – building on feedback from previous trainees, new posts will include a formal monthly meeting with an appointed mentor…but fieldwork programmes can make implementation of this tricky. Importantly all those involved need to understand the purpose of a training plan. It mustn’t become a race to complete sign off of tasks but be paced to enable time and a genuine understanding to develop.

A Trainee Archaeologist excavating

Trainees work in the field for around 20 days in three months

Giving staff the chance to build on and share their experiences is vital (even if it is potentially a little scary for the management team) and our AAL Xmas lectures, where staff give presentations on aspects of their work throughout the year, are just one way in which we do this.

“You only need to look within the company to see that it’s working with a number of former trainees now in other roles.”

So is it working? Well, since January 2014 AAL have taken on 10 trainees (that isn’t including people like Feenagh who had started before this but were/are still progressing on training plans). Two of those trainees started with the company as short-term volunteers. Six were offered contracts as Project Archaeologist (PA) at the end of their training plans: two have now specialised in non-field areas within the company (archives and DBA), two are currently field PAs, and one left for a non-field promotion outside the company and one has taken a break from archaeology. One trainee could not be given a PA contract due to a downturn in work. Only one traineeship didn’t work out.

“There was a balanced mix of office-based and site-based work that allowed me to develop excavation skills on small-large scale excavations, whilst learning how to make the transition from site material to post-excavation reporting smoother for all involved. All in all, my experience was really quite rounded. I enjoyed it immensely and it gave me the skills to feel confident to work at any site, or in the office”

“I’m very grateful the trainee scheme exists as it allowed me to get into commercial archaeology when it might have otherwise been difficult”

“It gave me a proper view of what commercial archaeology really was and I didn’t feel like my lack of experience prevented me from going on any site or prevented any opportunities … The staff at Allen are all very friendly and helpful which made asking questions, help and generally becoming a part of the team so much easier.”

“I found my trainee programme very beneficial as I previously had no experience digging – either commercial or academic, so was a great opportunity to get into archaeology and be paid for it.”

The numbers we can take on are small – we’re not going to solve the skills shortage single handedly – and I’m not trying to claim we’re perfect, but with a little thought, it is possible for even small companies to create effective, useful and robust training programmes that benefit the trainee and the company in equal measure. The interest we have seen as a relatively new and less well-known company, with applications from across the UK and Europe, is pretty staggering and suggests that we need to find a much better way of serving the next generation.

We’re looking forward to welcoming our latest batch of trainees at the start of May and to building on and improving our training going forwards.