The issue: “What do employers and training providers need to do to increase apprenticeship numbers across the creative and digital sector in the North and how can we make it easier for employers to take on apprentices?”
BQ’s Live Debate at a round table lunch at Manchester’s plush Innside hotel was attended by key figures from creative and digital industries in the North.
Rob Earnshaw: “We are trying to come up with a way to encourage more people to come, stay, and work in the North to meet the skills problem that we have. We currently have 2.1m people working in the creative media digital sector in the UK. We need another 1.2m between now and 2022.
“We have a huge digital skills shortage problem and more so in the North of England. When graduates come out of university or apprenticeships they automatically think that London is the place to work in the sector.
The idea of our campaign is to bring all the regions of the North together to come up with some real, sound recommendations to take to Government and say ‘this is what the private sector believe needs to happen.’ A lot of areas across the North are doing fantastic things.
They are doing apprenticeships, graduate placements or skills events and we want to bring those things together rather than being siloed. Hopefully we can get some really good recommendations about how we can get more young people into apprenticeships in the north of England. “
Louise Ball: “I was an apprentice myself when I was 16 and I have spent the last 12 years of my career working in the apprenticeship sector in digital and IT. I find it very, very rewarding and in the business where I work now we have supported 6,000 young people in to job roles in the last seven years. Those roles would not have existed except for the work that we do, going out there and convincing employers to give an opportunity to a young person. What I would like to get out of today is to understand as a training provider what skills we need at entry levels. We want to work with you to make sure that the programmes and training we do gives you something that you need and something
that you value.“
Mark Stringer: “I think this debate is about bringing new people in. I graduated from Salford and went straight to London and got quite a few roles. Then I decided that I wanted to come back to Manchester. I came back for my girlfriend and I liked my mum’s cooking. I came back and worked in a couple of agencies for a few years and then set up on my own. Moving on to where the talent comes from we’ve got what I think is one of the best developers in our agency. He was a painter and decorator and he taught himself how to code and is now our lead, front end developer. I’ve got a cousin who was sick of climbing in small holes as an electrician, he came into the agency to do something different and passed all his qualifications. He is now an account exec in a client services team.
Again, I think we need to think about where all that talent will come from. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it will come from young people. It’s about who has the right mindset and skill-set to come in and help out.
“There are some amazing agencies out there doing some great things. We went to an event in Liverpool and picked an apprentice who was with us for about six months. That has gone really well. He did a lot of video so we got him a job with another agency. We did some work with the chamber of commerce and teamed up with four Stockport colleges on a project called Gander - the ability to go in to a place of work and see what it is like can help cement whether you want to go in to that industry or not. You need to think back to when you were at college. I think we need to get the talent early.“
Stuart Kirby: “We work on the Amaze Academy training programme which is very similar to apprenticeships. We do it entirely in-house so we take care of training ourselves. We go to colleges, we go to universities, We are quite keen to support all levels, all ages. It can’t just be about universities or we wouldn’t be talking about this today. There’s not enough of them. We’ve got a mixture of ages from 18-32. We’ve got a programme running at the moment with Manchester college. We’ve said, ‘these are the technologies that we need at Amaze. These are the technologies that the digital sector needs generally.’
We go in to Manchester College every four weeks and do a three-hour guest lecture or workshop. Every student in the first year gets a mentor from one of the Amaze developers. Open though we are to apprenticeships we have a disconnect. You’ve got an apprentice.
We’ve got to train them on the job or send them to a training provider. What is the difference and what is the training provider doing? If the goal of the training provider is to give them a qualification, what qualification is it? At the end of the apprenticeship, if they’re not taken on they find themselves in a position of having a year of experience, but is their qualification robust enough to take them to university, get them a job, or is it going to be another apprenticeship?
Collaboration between the training provider and employers is probably the biggest link of all. It’s extremely difficult to make that scalable. The apprenticeship revolution is really quite young.”
Kirsty Styles: I’ve been doing this for a couple of months and have gone from Liverpool all the way up to Newcastle to establish what is going on, what the challenges are and what the solutions are. I’ve met a lot of interesting alternative skills providers like Juice Academy. We are setting the strategy as we speak but one of the challenges is mapping out what the problems look like and what the solutions look like. Where are the best alternative skills providers? Where are the best FE colleges? What kind of skills are they providing pre-entry to Masters level? If I was a learner or an employer how would I go to find out what geographically is available to me, what skills-wise is available to me in any given area? We are also trying to scale the alternative skills sector.
What’s happening in Liverpool? What’s happening in Newcastle? What could these providers learn from each other? How do they convince employers that they are the right people to turn to? One of the biggest things is just awareness, of the young people who stay here, the fact that there are great jobs here. I’ve just moved back after five years in London as a tech journalist. I’m sure there is appetite to move. You can’t buy a house in London. We’ve got great companies and great people here. It’s a great job and I’m very excited to work together with everyone.”
Helen Watson: “I’ve been there a long time and we have run a variety of graduate programmes. We tried one apprenticeship scheme with a partner that didn’t work out that great. We were asked to come along on an odd day just to see what they were up to but it felt like we weren’t in control of it. We recruited that apprentice at the end of that scheme and then we looked at our own academy. So we came away from apprenticeships. We brought Stuart in to run that for us because we needed to focus more on structure. It’s in its second year now and it’s working really well. So for us it’s really what should we look out for? What should we be doing with an apprenticeship? How can we influence the training so that it is successful for us as well?
Lee Frater: “I work with organisations who are supporting small businesses, working with small businesses, to help them to understand digital technology and the benefits of digital technology for their company. Often the work that I do is around the cloud at the moment as that is a big focus for Microsoft. In my prior role to Microsoft I actually headed up the digital growth programme here in Greater Manchester so I was leading on the initiative to support businesses to understand digital technology and how that could actually help them, and we touched on apprenticeships or upskilling individuals in your own organisation.
One of the things that I find all the time is actually educating people or educating society as a whole, shall we say, around what those opportunities are for the individuals who go in to those roles. One of the things I find as a parent, I talk to parents a lot of the time, is that they don’t see the value of an apprenticeship. They think my child will go to college, go to university, get a degree and then after that they will get a job. Whereas actually, now, I think, my son’s only young, but I think I would rather he did an apprenticeship and got the skills and actually had something that was valuable for that business. I think there is a big education piece that needs to happen around parents and the disconnect at the moment with regard to what the right career path is for someone. In the past I have run my own business, have been a successful entrepreneur, and I now work for Microsoft.
I dropped out of university. I do not have a degree, but I am successful in my career and I think that inspiring people to show them what the opportunities are out there in an organisation, is a big focus that we need to address. In the digital and creative industries one of the things that we see in Microsoft is the gender imbalance, improving the number of women in the sectors is a big focus for us. We’ve got an initiative called DigiGirlz where Microsoft volunteer employees go out and help young girls in schools with coding and all those type of things.”
Stephen Preyzner: “This is an interesting debate because I am coming to it on the flip side to you guys. My role is senior business development and account management so I spend a lot of time with guys like you who are seeking further information on apprenticeships.
My background is recruitment and sales and for me I guess one of the biggest challenges that we face when dealing with a company looking at potentially taking on an apprentice is perceived impressions, normally from a negative experience. And it maybe goes back to what Mark was talking about with work trials. Apprenticeships are important but we are also looking to place young people long-term within companies that will stay two years, three years, five years and progress with that company to get return on investment from the employer’s point of view. So to do that you’ve got to make a good match and that means listening to an employee’s needs and I don’t think that’s necessarily been done in the past.
So consequently poor matches mean negative experience and that is a big portion of what we are dealing with today. We want to overcome that and say the candidates we are dealing with, the talent pool that we have at the moment, do know about PHP, they can do websites with dreamweaver, HTML and so forth.
They are not coming in as wet behind the ears and going to be a drain on finances. It’s how to get that message across. Work trials and this kind of thing work for us but I think it needs a bigger piece around that, new promotion and a place where these people can showcase their talent. Somewhere where young people can go and actually demonstrate what they can do in a public arena.”
James Summerscales: “We are an integrated agency based in Sale just outside Manchester. I am business development manager so I have direct contact with apprentices. When I left University there was a big perception that it was incorrect to come up North. A lot of people in the South want you to stay there and think the best way to further your career is to stay in London. It’s completely false and I’m still talking to friends saying come up North. They still believe that they have to stay in London for their career. I think that’s the biggest challenge. Why is there that perception and how can it be changed?”
Wayne Silver: “I’m from down South originally and came to Salford to do my degree and stayed in the North. I wouldn’t go back down South if you paid me. We’ve got 45 staff in the agency. We’ve been involved in taking on apprentices for probably six years now through various private sector suppliers and we actively use that very prominently during our creds presentation to clients because it chimes with a lot with clients if you have apprentices in your own business.
We work with an Austrian business called Blum and they believe that all their NPD, all of their R&D is driven by apprentices. It’s a family owned business and they have been working with apprentices since 1973. When we are talking to them and saying that we are 45 strong and that there are two apprentices in the agency they loved that bit of shared value. And you look around the landscape in the North West and I’m sure many of you will know the prominent figures who lead agencies in the North West and they are often not from a university background.
They are good examples of people who are very, very successful and very good insightful people in our industry. I think one of the things that is important to us, and perhaps one of the reasons we try to attract talent, is because as well as an apprenticeship programme we do invest very heavily in ongoing training programmes, and we are an accredited member of the IPA and the IPA qualifications are portable, so you take your IPA CV with you wherever you go. It’s a very valuable resource.
“On gender imbalance, the really terrible thing about that situation here is a really disproportionate lack of women at senior levels in creative and media industries in the North West. There are examples of agencies like BJL that have completely flipped the trend where the senior people are all women. I commute for an hour and a half every day and I’m a Radio 4 junkie and the other day I was listening to an article about the attitude towards apprenticeships and towards university education.
I think if you get back to the old principles of sensible, relevant marketing, it’s all very well having a great product but the demand is not there because from an early age people have the attitude that university is better than non university. One of the speakers on the programme was saying that if you look at the German market they have 30 times more young people going in to technical apprenticeship routes and their economy isn’t doing that bad really.
There are lessons to be learned there. I’m not making a political point but there has been a drive towards the number of people who go to university The polytechnics aren’t here any more and they were the champions of practical degrees. Maybe the change needs to happen not just with employers and training companies, it also has to happen from a society point of view as well.“
Arlene Bulfin: We are a tech business, a web hosting company, a family owned business starting 17 years ago. About four years ago the founders wanted to look at education as they were really struggling to fill the skills gap in our business, and they knew they wanted to scale the business so they need more great employees to do that.
I’m a teacher by trade but I left teaching to go to UKFast to set up the apprenticeship programme. We started to look at the current offering for apprenticeships, and how we could do that ourselves in-house with the support of a training provider. But we knew that we wanted to control a lot of what the apprentices did. We didn’t want them going on day release. We didn’t want someone else training them. We wanted them to follow a bespoke UKFast curriculum.
For us the apprenticeship is the start of their journey. When they come to be assessed for recruitment we tell them that one of them will run the business long term. Sometimes when we do a promotion of the apprenticeships someone will say ‘is there a job at the end of it?’ and I will say ‘I will not give you two years of all my time and energy to let you go at the end of the two years.’
Why would people put so much energy and time in to them and not keep them? It absolutely astounds me. So we started with four apprentices. We convinced parents to give us their children and they did thank God. We started a brilliant programme which was a lot of fun and a lot of learning for everyone.
That was three and a half years ago and we have now over 40 apprentices at UKFast.
The bulk of them are in the tech sector, but we have customer service and maintenance who look after our building, but what we realised quickly was that everyone started to say ‘can I have an apprentice in my department? He’s really good, or she’s really good. I want one.’
“As a business that has been really positive for us. We do a huge amount in terms of promoting apprenticeships, as a pathway in schools. I was at a primary school this morning speaking at an assembly for Year Ones who were at the front telling them about tech and what we do. We think exposure and awareness is really, really important. We brought Years Five and Six back to the business to talk about tech.
“We are also trying to scale. We have written a Masters with MMU which will launch next year in cloud computing and entrepreneurship and we have put an application in with the Government to set up a free school with a digital and technical focus. We will influence the curriculum massively.
“We are lucky enough as a business to have a lot of resource to look at how we can really influence the future of our industry.
“Businesses need to take more responsibility engaging with schools and colleges. Uni is too late. We are now putting code clubs in as many schools as my apprentices will go to. Kids are anything from six plus and they tell me they want to work in UKFast which is really exciting.
We just want to scale it, that’s our biggest challenge at the moment. How do we do that everywhere? “
Rob Earnshaw: “This is about how we get more apprenticeships specifically in the North. It’s about encouraging young people and older people as well to take up apprenticeships in this region.“
Wayne Silver: “I went to a big social media conference last year. They had the director of European policy for LinkedIn. She was talking about how they are piloting a series of skills gap research with Manchester as the lead city in the UK and I think Barcelona and San Francisco. They are in a very unique position because they have a lot of recruiters in their network and a lot of people who give up a lot of professional information on the network.
They are building dynamic maps about the types of roles that are required, in say Manchester, and the types of workforce that are available in Manchester and then they use that research to approach the education sector to say you should be putting on more of this and less of that. That sounded like a really practical use of that information and considering that someone joins LinkedIn every three seconds or so it is a very buoyant platform.”
Mark Stringer: “When you look across creative tech it’s a cottage industry. The average size of an agency is 10 if not a little bit smaller. When you think about the position of those types of agencies it’s all very fast moving. They are thinking ‘I’ve got to get this pitch done tomorrow, I’ve got to get my VAT bill paid”
“There’s a list of fast business choices that need to be made and to be honest thinking about taking on an apprentice is just going to cost time and energy. It’s just something that you put to the bottom of the list and as sad as that is, it’s the honest truth. I’m not sure what the solution is but that’s the problem. Our apprentice was great and it really changed people’s minds in the agency towards apprenticeships.”
Louise Ball: “It took the MD of Accenture nine months to get an apprenticeship programme off the ground. Because of all the changes in funding and the trailblazers as well there are two massive reforms next year. Again it is adding a layer of complexity. Probably 60% of our client base is SME and I understand that you’ve got the pressures of business and you have to earn an income and then you have to go through all that. You’ve got to work with a good provider who will take the pain out of that process for you. They should get to know you, get to know your business, get to know your requirements, and then find specific people who are going to fit with that culture. Next year, when the funding changes, apprenticeship funding will be open to any age. “
Stuart Kirby: “We introduced the Amaze Academy about two years ago. It’s made quite a splash but it’s still quite young. Let’s make sure these six people we have employed are going to get the best opportunities available inside the company. We’ve got about eight partner schools working with us now with collaboration going across those teachers. We need people that are really, really skilled and are skilled as quickly as they can be. Universities still teach Java not .NET. We decided to teach it ourselves and have a tailored unique experience.“
Arlene Bulfin: “Schools and colleges are having massive cuts their budgets. Careers are always the first thing to go and schools are being measured on how many pupils they get in to university. Really in schools we need the measurement to be how many pupils are going into apprenticeships. Schools will react as they always do and meet that target.”
Rob Earnshaw: “It is so important to have the right provider working alongside you. If someone has a bad experience it gets talked about within the industry and can put providers in a bad light. I think we should have some sort of recommendation on the types of good providers out there, working with good companies and getting great feedback.“
Stephen Preyzner: “It is hard to break that stigma when a negative experience has happened.”
Louise Ball: Government has an agenda to get more companies to create more opportunities for apprenticeships. A lot of employers say that the programmes were not up-to-date and relevant to the skills they needed to have. Groups of employers now come together and say ‘these are the skills and the behaviours we are looking for.’ These new trailblazer standards are slowly being introduced.”
Lee Frater: ”There’s a huge focus in Microsoft around growing talent. We have apprenticeships, internships and grads as well. We are looking at talent in lots of different ways. The big focus for Microsoft is our partner ecosystem. Microsoft have approximately 25,000 partners around the UK. IT companies, re-sellers, companies around infrastructure, software and we have a big focus at the moment on how do we actually upskill our partners? Whether you are a small business or a big business, you are constantly doing stuff.
It’s that constant pace of change all of the time. You have to install in your employees across the board - apprentices or not - that love of learning, of learning new things. At the Microsoft Academy where we work very closely with a lot of the LEPs and a lot of businesses around the UK.
“The Microsoft mission is to empower every individual and every organisation on the planet to achieve more. From an education perspective, how do we empower everyone to get the skills that they need?”
Kirsty Styles: “We are taking about what good looks like. Talking about problems whether it’s around diversity or digital skills. In the North we’ve got incredible examples of people doing all this great stuff. How do we show that off? How do we quantify it? We expect different things from companies today. Companies are starting to be called out in a way that they haven’t been for a long time. My concern is that Government has an agenda for digital skills, Google has one, Microsoft has one. My concern is how do people get all the skills that they need no matter what the software.”
Mark Stringer: “We are an industry of early adopters. We’re very flexible. I know agencies that have flexible starting and finishing times We can easily offer good hours around school times. Older people tend to be better at the soft skills like talking to people from the off.
Younger people have to learn those communication skills. It’s mostly men that work in our agency. The only woman is my wife. We are actively trying to get more women in to the business. If I could get more women in to the business who are struggling to get roles, that would make me feel even better about it.
“There’s a lot of jobs that we do in our sector that are hidden so we need to try and explain them a little bit more. I coach an under 14 football team and when I ask the lads what
they want to do they say ‘be an accountant’.
I say ‘have a look at being a developer. It’s good money, it’s flexible and it’s really exciting.’ I think that needs to be done on a bigger level.
Lee Frater: “It’s about inspiring the parents and the youngsters and telling them what the jobs are. In all of the business around the table there are technical roles, sales roles, development roles and account manager roles. There is so much opportunity in all of these businesses. Young people don’t know about those roles.”
Mark Stringer: “You know the Join the Army adverts? We kind of need that for account manager roles. And make it exciting.”
Wayne Silver: “You pick any agency in the North West and I bet you every single one of those agencies calls the same person a different job role. Either a digital technologist - what’s one of them? - or a content architect. Years ago the pathway was very clear but now it is sort of fragmented.
Where do people find the information about job roles? People are so savvy these days they will hunt it out. Young people, parents and teachers will find out where those things are on offer. They will find them but they are just not thinking that they are a valid thing to find at the moment. There is still this default snobbery that degrees are the best route, so you have to get to people much earlier in the process.
I see the 18 year olds coming into our business and they have good people skills, good attention to detail, good project management and they are really, really hungry because they have made that active decision to buck the normal route of travel.
You need to take the apprentices as the product champions. Run their experiences and case studies up the flagpole. That’s why Children In Need is so successful. Tons and tons of vox pops saying ‘look what it did for me. Look what it did for my child’. “
Helen Watson: “My 13 year old knows nothing about computer science so we’ve come up with something called girl.Code working with six schools doing school assemblies, and four-week course. They are also going to get a certificate at the end of it because they are all about to do their options. None of my daughter’s friends think computer science is a great idea. They think it is geeky and they would rather pick music or art. It’s really important that we get them at year nine or before to start educating them that it’s a great career.”
Arlene Bulfin: “We have looked at teachers being important stakeholders. A lot of teachers don’t have any industry experience. So we are working with a college in Wigan that we love and we are going to do teacher work experience. They are going to come to UKFast for a couple of days and see what it’s like to work in a real business. We thought that was a really nice idea.“
Mark Stringer: “I would like to see some budget invested in above the line advertising on breaking down the boundaries on what it means to work in this industry - rather than do something that is low key.“
James Summerscales: “I think the main thing is the simplification of all this. When I was looking for a job in this industry I could read 30 different things but they were all the same job really. I think we need to unify what each area is and simplify that for apprentices. I think this needs to start at agency level because agencies have to focus on what they want from an apprentice.”
Rob Earnshaw: “I think it is vital that we as a sector find a way that can get in to schools to influence them and I think Government has a role to play as well to make sure that schools and colleges in the North are encouraged to promote the apprenticeship route as much as the university route.“
Wayne Silver: “I think there is such an amount of baggage associated with the word apprentice. I’ve heard people say oh, cheap labour, making the tea, wet behind the ears, so I think you should change the word. Very radical I know but there you go.“
Louise Ball: “Our mission is not only to ensure that employers are getting great people but also to ensure that the apprentice has the best possible start. That they are able to have transferable skills and can move on and move up.“
Rob Earnshaw: “When a young person spends time in a company they realise that these negative perceptions around apprenticeships are completely wrong. They are highly ambitious proactive young people who want jobs.
“Maybe as a sector we could have a specific day where we allow access to schools so they can meet with the digital and creative people in the North? At least it lets young people know that there is a sector on their doorstep.
“As the could we say that we are going to open our doors for this week and allow someone to come in?”
Louise Ball: “I think removing the jargon and speaking to people in a way that they can understand and telling them about the benefits of where this could take them in the world and their earning potential, is really important.”
Arlene Bulfin: “The National Apprenticeship Service were an amazing part of what we’ve done. At the start of our journey they supported us so much. Now we are a couple of years in we feel that that support has been withdrawn in some ways. They gave us the encouragement when we were starting off to say ‘you can do this on your own.’ If you want to drive three million apprenticeships by 2020 it’s going to need some money throwing at it. Definitely.”
Kirsty Styles: “We are pulling together loads of different bits of work. A lot of the things we’ve talked about today are being looked at. Talking to people in their language is really important. Maybe we do a gonzo journalism film where you surprise people in their offices and find out what they are up to.”
Louise Ball: “Thank you very much to everyone who has attended today. I really appreciate it. It’s been extremely insightful and interesting. And I hope together we can all create more opportunities. We can create outstanding careers for people. I’m certain with people like ourselves around the table it will definitely happen. “
Sandy Grom: assistant director, Digital Economy Unit, DCMS, added: “With many digital businesses reporting digital vacancies as hard to fill, taking on a digital apprentice is a good way to find someone to tailor their digital skills to meet company needs.
“Thirteen employer designed digital apprentice standards have been developed from software developer, cyber security technologist and data analyst, with others in development.”