Great apes and great apprenticeships

Set in the rolling Leicestershire countryside is a 52 year old, 200-employee business. It’s a world leader in conservation and a prolific deliverer of education. Every year, through its formal primary and secondary education programmes which are aligned with the national curriculum, 33,000 children visit Twycross Zoo.

“We speak to the STEM agenda,” says its CEO Sharon Redrobe.

And it does so persuasively. In 2010 Twycross Zoo received a small grant to teach the STEM agenda.

It ran 1,000 classes for 6,000 children who had self-identified themselves (and this was supported by their teachers) as not being willing or interested in taking a science A-Level. Off the back of doing these classes, a remarkable 88 per cent converted to studying at least one science A-Level.

“Those were remarkable results” says Redrobe, “and we would love to run this programme again.”

University partnerships

As a partner of the University of Nottingham, 100 veterinary students learn at the zoo each year. In 2014, the zoo worked with 27 universities on 67 projects.

Redrobe’s own career is steeped in education. A vet by training, she has primarily worked in academia having worked with the Universities of Edinburgh and Bristol and more recently set up the first zoo-linked department of wildlife medicine in the UK at Nottingham University Vet School (the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science). There, she jokes, she went native. “I am putting my money where my mouth was.”

This commitment to learning is equally evident in the workforce at Twycross Zoo. Of the 200 employees, half can be described as working in science.

“We have MSCs, PhDs working here. It’s not just shovelling poo, you know,” says Redrobe.

A place for apprentices

Eight apprentices have been trained at Twycross Zoo in the last three years and it has ended up employing most of them. The roles are advertised internally and externally to give existing staff the opportunity for further development.

It has also established partnerships with local colleges. In addition the Zoo uses ‘assessment centres’ rather than traditional interview techniques which have proved successful in identifying the most suitable candidates.

This system allows the Zoo to observe hands-on skills and to assess the candidates in line with the zoo’s competency framework.

Once the apprenticeship is complete, the students will have gained experience working on all the animal sections within the zoo.

“In recent years,” Redrobe notes, “we have had vacancies come up for trainee keepers just as the course finished and I am proud to say that we employ almost all the keepers who have completed apprenticeships with us over the past five years.”

In addition, the zoo runs approximately 90 work experience placements annually, although this programme is evolving over time with fewer, longer placements becoming the norm, but which in turn increases the value of the work experience to the scheme’s participants.

Potential for growth

Apart from the salary bill, a zoo is an expensive and complex place to run. There are literally plenty of other mouths to feed (and keep warm). Although its income is highly seasonal, it has to run every day of the year.

Yet the potential for growth is there. At present, Twycross Zoo annually attracts 500,000 visitors but there are more than 20 million people living within a two hour drive time. It has scope to expand physically: it’s a 35-acre zoo within an 88 acre site.

The jewel in its crown is one of the most important and comprehensive collection of great apes anywhere in the world.

However it requires considerable investment to grow a zoo. Bigger, naturalistic enclosures are clearly better for the animal and much appreciated by visitors,  but the financial reality is that building a new home for gorillas requires both heavy-duty engineering and sensitive naturalistic theming. This makes them bespoke and expensive projects.

In 2013, the year in which Redrobe became CEO, Twycross invested £200,000 in its infrastructure. In 2014, that figure increased to £800,000. In 2015, it will be investing £2.5m.

“A lot of our investment is focused on infrastructure and staff training. The possibility of Government support via schemes such as the Regional Growth Fund framework and other grants would help us to unlock the potential of the site and are really important to growing businesses such as Twycross Zoo. We are delighted to be included in the Leicestershire Strategic Economic Plan for the region.”

Building skills in conservation

Apart from the benefits of enhancing its status as a visitor attraction in the area, Redrobe is keen to highlight the conservation work of the zoo: “we are literally saving some species from extinction by working with both international captive breeding programmes and working to protect the shrinking wild population.”

“We engage with a large domestic audience about environmental and STEM topics,” she continues.

“We are sharing skills and building capacity in 26 countries worldwide with national governments about animal conservation and biodiversity. So we can be a deliverer of many important governmental programmes.

“The British have always been a nation of animal lovers and that is underpinned by our legislation. We are the world leader in animal welfare and our approach to conservation. That should be a point of national pride – we should celebrate it.”


The National Apprenticeship Service supports the delivery of apprenticeships and traineeships in England. It offers free, impartial advice and support to employers looking to recruit for the first time or expand their programme.

For more information on the benefits of apprenticeships to your business complete the enquiry form to talk to someone at the National Apprenticeship Service.  Alternatively you can call the National Apprenticeship Service on free phone 08000 150 600.