The news that Doug Richard has been appointed to lead a Government Review of Apprenticeships has got me thinking about what advice I would give it.
One of my last tasks at Skillset was leading the development of a brand new Apprenticeship for the creative industries*, using the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games as a catalyst and catapult for new talent into the industry. It was a long process, involving conversations with hundreds of industry professionals and companies, as well as all parts of the awarding, delivery and funding system.
Here are my top ten challenges for the Review.
1) Cultural Change.
Let’s start with the biggie. Apprenticeships are still looked down upon by all parts of the Education (and dare I say it, employment) system. They are often regarded as a second or third-rate qualification, blue-collar certificates that give people skills for manual labour rather than academic rigor or intellectual thinking. This, of course, is not true, but it a strongly held belief.
We in the UK don’t live in a blue-collar economic employment world any more. We need higher level skills to succeed and thrive. These skills can and should be learned “on the job”, therefore an Apprenticeship should be the ideal way. But until we move hearts and minds to seeing them as equivalent in level of skill, kudos and social standing to A’ Levels and Degrees, then we won’t move away from the unspoken undercurrent that they are for people ‘not good enough’ for ‘proper’ qualifications.
2) Apprenticeships vs ‘apprenticeship’
Whilst we were talking to employers regarding the new Apprenticeship for Creative Media, the initial response was always positive.
“What, I get a member of staff, who works for me, learns on the job, and doesn’t cost me much? Where do I sign?!”
This is an easy thought process for an employer to take – but it wasn’t the reality of the situation. This preconception is what I call an “apprenticeship with a small a”, and for many higher level skills professions is almost exactly what happens already. People come from university and work, often for free or low pay, learning on the job, gaining new skills. Many media employers I spoke to just replaced that graduate intern or new start in their head with an Apprentice that the Government gives them money for! Win!
Care is needed around the language used. ‘Big A’ Apprenticeships come with set conditions and boundaries – some explicit, some more subtle due to the current funding constraints – boundaries such as age or highest level of previous qualification attained, length of time in the workplace or how much study they will need to do not directly related to that employer can come as nasty surprises to employers not given the full picture from the start.
3) Who are you selling it to?
A tricky area is marketing. 16 is the earliest age for Apprenticeships to start their courses, and therefore the decision maker is not just the individual embarking on this vocational path, but their parents, sibling, peers and teachers. That’s a lot of people to impact on with a marketing campaign. Add to that the need to drive up demand with employers – of all sizes, sectors and skills needs – and the message lines are multiple and complex.
On top of this is the multiple sources of the marketing – from training providers, funding agencies, government departments, national bodies, trades unions, sectors skills councils, charities, industry, etc. Co-ordination across these is well nigh impossible, resulting in noise and mixed messages.
The reason that Skillset was able to convince a whole heap of creative media employers to spend the time focusing on a new Apprenticeship was because many of them were unhappy with a) the traditional entry routes into the industry, b) the content of existing qualifications or c) the aptitude and attitude of the new recruits they were seeing.
The chance to develop a brand new qualification, with up-to-date and industry-led content, taught in the manner that would ensure that the students had both experience and knowledge to help there companies thrive meant we had many, many important and busy people giving their expertise and wisdom.
But. It wasn’t the blank piece of paper that the employers had hoped for. There were lots of things that couldn’t be shifted, and previous efforts that had to be modified rather than scrapped and replaced. Mmm.
Once the content was agreed, the lines of learning sketched out and mapped, came the next hurdle. This Apprenticeship was focused primarily on digital media – a highly volatile and changeable sector. And therefore all the employers felt it important that the content could be changed as and when neccessary, ensuring that no-one was learning obsolete kit or practices. But that wasn’t the reality of the situation, with Awarding Bodies agreeing to refreshing it every few years…
Rationalisation of the qualification soup that is out there is of course needed. I can’t remember how many there were, but students, employers and parents were (are?) faced with a bewildering array of paths to choose from. This led to strong pressure, perhaps rightly, to ensure that new paths be as broad as possible whilst still meeting the needs of employers. In our case, this meant creating an Apprenticeship that was as attractive to animation as it was to advertising, film as it was to facilities, publishing to photography.
I believed (and still do) that the digital technology and workflows in all these sectors gives them huge crossovers and shared learning, but that view wasn’t always shared by every part of the industry. Added to this the huge number of entry level roles that Apprenticeships go on to fill.
It’s hard to imagine one Apprenticeship framework that can meet all these needs.
Another biggie. Some of the delivery partners out their in Apprenticeships are fantastic. Clued up on the needs of industry, with enough contacts to ensure that their students get into work as soon as possible. Full of talented and driven teaching staff, with one foot still in industry, bringing their practices and knowledge to the course.
And some aren’t. It would be wrong of me to name name’s, but I’ve visited delivery partners whose welcome is more like a prison than a place for employers to get their next generation of talent, who’s staff are old fashioned and frankly bigoted about what opportunities lie in wait for their students, whose infrastructure is crumbling.
And it’s hard, delivering these things, for the money in it. The per head budget for each student was really stretched by a course that relied on exposure to digital technology as much as ours. Off the record, some delivery partners told me that that was why they couldn’t offer it – it would just cost too much. It’s hard getting and keeping contacts alive in the industry that you are delivering for, particularly if, like media, that industry isn’t exactly beating down your door.
But it only takes one bad experience of a delivery partner by an employer for them to go back to the easier, safer route of Graduate new entry.
Here’s an interesting challenge – how do you get employers to take the Apprentices on?
By making the fact that they are Apprentices secondary to the fact that they are hiring people with must-have skills and attitudes. By making sure that the Apprentice contribute to their bottom line from day one. By taking a task / role / skill headache away from them by giving them this person. Treat the Apprentice as an employee.
We spoke to newspapers who said give us people that can SEO our small ads. Advertising Agencies who said give us people with digital workflow knowledge so they can track a job through different media. Post Houses who said give us digitising, Quality Control and Data Handling skills. Photographers who said meta-data and library. Games Companies who said QC and Testing. News Agencies who said on-the-ground vox-pox and library. The list goes on.
The trick is to make sure that the Apprentices walks through the door, day one, with that key “killer skill” .
In many sectors there are lots of traditional and quite a few non-traditional entry routes. Students, teachers, parents and employers will usually be conservative in their choices – who is going to trust their future to an untried and untested path? The challenge for Apprenticeships, especially new one in industries that have less history with them, is to be a credible first choice for aspiring participants, and their future employers.
9) It’s a journey, not a destination
My vision for the Creative Media Apprenticeship is for it to be a foundation framework for a lifelong involvement of learning. That the pathways would link to each other through detailed understanding of skills and knowledge needed for each role it was their to support. That the learner could continue their pathways throughout their careers, easily being able to see what top-up or completely new skills they would need to be able to do a role in their own or even another creative media sector.
No-one has a job-for-life anymore, and very few have only one career, so a flexible and dynamic framework of learning, a 3D matrix of sector, role and seniority, could help ensure that individuals could live up to their own ambitions and potential.
It was hard enough to get the Awarding Bodies to create a qualification in a short time – trying to wrestle with the entire qualification framework system was never going to happen.
10) Will it last?
At the same time as I was embarking on the development of the Apprenticeship, colleagues at Skillset were busy with the new 14-19 Diploma. A huge amount of work, consultation and planning went into creating these ‘new lines of learning’.
Political will meant that the death bell for these qualifications has probably already sounded, before they were ever really given a chance.
One of the things I heard during the industry consultations was “will these replace O’levels?”
It take many, many years for a new qualification to be embedded in the psyche of parents and teachers – will the latest iteration of Apprenticeships survive long enough for their true potential to be realised?
*My role at Skillset included everything Olympics – particularly ensuring that the creative media industries were ready to take advantage of the greatest circus on the planet being here on our doorstep. Part of that was to use the amazing exposure that The Games gives to create alternative, open and new entry routes into the industry, whilst helping meet some of the skills gaps and shortages that “games-time” employment highlighted. Out of this came the new Advanced Apprenticeship in Creative and Digital Media.
I also worked with many of the other key sectors in London and beyond on cross-industry programmes.