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Buddy, can you spare a minute?

Rosie Waterhouse reports on a scheme which helps trainees fit into the workplace environment more easily

Remember your first day in your first job? You don't know who's who or where to find the cloakroom or the canteen. In the first few weeks and even months you feel insecure; you don't know how you're doing or what's expected of you.

Now imagine you have a guide or friend to watch over you, make you feel welcome, show you around - someone to talk to about any problems from the serious to the mundane. Meet your own personal "buddy". Karl Turner, 21, is one of 31 modern apprentices recently recruited by Orange, the mobile telephone network, who has been allocated a buddy to help him slot comfortably into a high-tech company with 14,000 employees in the UK.

Mike Curry, 33, is a more experienced worker and is Karl's buddy. His role is to befriend Karl over his first two years, nurture his potential and ensure he not only stays with the company but also develops and progresses.

Without a buddy, Karl, from Ebbw Vale in South Wales, who has nine GCSEs and a general national vocational qualification (GNVQ) in information technology, would certainly have survived. But the transition to his new job at Orange's Bristol headquarters would not have been so smooth. "Having a buddy scheme made it easier to move into a big company," said Karl, who is now in his second year training to be a technician. "I was able to progress in nice easy steps. The scheme lulls you into feeling secure. Mike is a focal point, a confidant and friend."

For instance, when Karl was preparing a project for his college course in micro-electronics, Mike helped him sift through the daunting reading list and choose some essential reference books.

Mike, who runs Orange's technology management centre, seems to be a natural leader and mentor. Having joined the Royal Air Force at 16 as a trainee telecommunications engineer, he became a corporal at 20, and was responsible for managing a team. Since joining Orange in 1996, he has been an unofficial mentor to a generation of young trainees and officially a buddy for the past 12 months.

"It softens the blow for young people coming in to have a buddy alongside," said Mike, a father of triplet boys, who lives in Chippenham, Wiltshire.

"It gives them a helping hand in the softer skills, like where to go and who to speak to, not just the technical skills required for the job."

The benefits of buddy schemes are highlighted in a national survey of training providers by the Adult Learning Inspectorate, called "Successful Learning at Work".

Without good quality learning at work, the report says, trainees can become demotivated and give up, becoming unemployed or drifting from one unskilled job to another.

A growing number of training provider companies are realising the importance of a buddy scheme to ease new young learners into the world of work. A century ago this was common practice in industries such as printing which traditionally recruited apprentices to learn the trade.

It has been revived in recent years as companies have tried to address the problem of poor motivation and retention among the new generation of work-based trainees.

Phillip Hatton, a senior inspector with the ALI, said: "It's reinventing the wheel almost. But as training providers have thought about how to tackle poor retention they have realised that young people sometimes feel isolated, especially if they are in a workplace with people who have friendships already established.

"Where the buddy system is in place it seems to be working extremely well in terms of young people feeling they have got someone to support them.

When they get problems either with work or even at home, they have someone to refer to immediately and feel very comfortable about it."

There are 280,000 people aged between 16 and 25 in government-funded work-based training in England, often in the form of a modern apprenticeship or as part of an NVQ course.

Another example of good practice praised by inspectors is a system of appointing a mentor - usually an older and far more experienced employee, to guide the progress of young trainees.

Best practice begins with a comprehensive induction to the workplace, the report said. This includes regular reviews and target setting to monitor progress and set targets linked to on-the-job training, coaching and assessment.

Orange operates both a buddy and a mentor scheme. Alex Oakley, national resourcing manager, said: "Our trainees are relatively young so the idea is to orientate people and make them as effective and established as quickly as possible. It's a support mechanism."

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