It’s just occurred to me that it was around about this time last year when we were first approached by John Myers from the National Apprenticeship Service with the crazy idea that we might want to start our own apprenticeship. ‘But we’re a PR agency,’ I helpfully and insightfully (I thought) pointed out. ‘Yes,’ said he. ‘But that’s the point. Social media needs to be taught by the people doing it, day to day, or it’s really not going to work.’
I thought he had a point but I was still a little daunted by the whole thing. We’d run graduate and apprenticeship programmes in the past (Manchester Masters and Creative Break) but these were all about us coming up with the concept, the brand, recruiting the employers and then handing the willing victims, be they post-grads or shiny new young things, over to a university or a training provider. This would not be the case if we picked up the gauntlet of this latest challenge.
To give some context, everyone in the marketing sector was bemoaning the ‘skills gap’ in digital and we’d particularly noticed a lack of ‘experienced social media practitioners’ which was (and to a point still is) an oxymoron, due to the juvenile age of this world. Couple this with the fact that there are thousands of ‘digital natives’ out there looking for work and it’s hard to see how these two facts compute (no pun intended).
So we got some mates in a room – and by ‘mates’ I mean the types of people who we know from the previous job creation programmes mentioned above are passionate about giving breaks to young people – such as William Lees Jones, MD of JW Lees, Chris Sheffield, MD of BetFred online, Scott Jefferson, Marketing Director of Pets at Home, Nicky Unsworth, MD of BJL and Amanda Coleman, Communications Director of GMP (to mention but a few).
And we asked them what they thought would be the reaction from ‘the market’ if we launched what would be the UK’s first ever social media apprenticeship and the reaction was instantaneous and hugely positive (and, as they all agreed to sit on our ‘Advisory Panel’ we felt we might have something).
Anyway, we thought, what’s the harm in putting a business plan together? But first we had to see how the digital bods at Tangerine felt about taking off their ‘consultant’ hat (intermittently) and becoming ‘teacher’ instead. The plan wouldn’t work without their commitment and I was hugely proud and impressed to hear every one of them not only saying they were on board but being genuinely excited at the prospect.
So, with this in mind and the business plan written and approved by the Tangerine board, we were off and running.
But THEN came the not-so-fun part. The red tape. Gah!
You know how much us marketing types LOVE paperwork and admin? Well picture your worst ever nightmare of a public sector tender and times it by 10! Not fun. We took the framework and (quite frankly) rewrote it to resemble something that would actually work in the real world, in consultation with our Advisory Panel. Then we had to create the lesson plan and every single lesson had to be approved to form part of the assessment which would give our apprentices a Level 3 Advanced Apprenticeship qualification at the end of their 12 month course.
We also had to recruit our first cohort of employers (which wasn’t too difficult as the enthusiasm was infectious and we had massive support from the media) and our apprentices (which conversely proved to be much more difficult that we’d imagined, as schools and colleges were almost impossible to penetrate so we had to do pretty much everything direct). And we found and recruited our wonderful Lucy to manage it all!
And all of this in the space of a few months as we needed our first cohort in place in time for the July exam results, so we could get the cream of the crop school leavers.
So what have we learnt since then? And was it all worth it?... I hear you say?
In answer to the first question: loads.
Our learning curve has been literally vertical. It’s not all been fun and we’ve had some nasty shocks and really struggled with some elements of the apprenticeship world which is enthusiastic but – like most parts of the public sector – not particularly logical or commercial (sorry – just saying it like I’ve found it!)
We’ve been forced to pay for things (like ‘Matrix’ accreditation which does nothing for us, or from what I can see/hear, the sector, but is ‘compulsory’) and jump through ridiculous hoops which add no value and change regularly as someone in central Government comes up with more paperwork or training for us to do. And we’ve found the pace of the whole thing painfully slow at times.
And even ‘meeting’ and getting to know 17 year-olds has been a bit of an eye opener – I thought they’d instantly see the opportunity they’d been given and grab it with both hands (with the enthusiastic support of their parents) but that hasn’t always been the case and I’ve, personally, found that difficult to swallow.
Because, through all of this, while I should say this was a commercially-minded business decision, my own motivation for doing this has always been first and foremost: creating opportunities for people from different backgrounds to enter our amazing world, just as someone gave me - a kid from a council estate with no university degree - a break all those years ago.
But, thankfully, in answer to the second question: it’s a huge yes. Those bright young things who have seized the opportunity and lived and loved their new challenge have reached into the stressed out, bitter-and-twisted-by-paperwork, centre of my heart and made it all worthwhile. When I see them working a room at a conference or hear about them delivering amazing business-altering results after only a few months with a business, I think about what we’ve done and it does, I have to admit, make me very proud.
In less than 12 months, we’ve created nearly 40 quality jobs for young people, many of whom had previously not even considered marketing as a career and who now are flying high in their new roles. They’re coming to the Academy with big smiles on their faces, telling us stories of all the amazing things they’re doing and the amazing people they’re meeting.
Our employers are giving us amazing feedback too and several of them have been so impressed with their apprentice that they’ve come back for more. One of our employers has had an apprentice from all three cohorts! They tell us that, while our apprentices need lots of love at first, they also immediately start making an impact and they start teaching their managers things almost from day one (so much so that we’ve had to launch a corporate course for the managers to go on, so they can manage their 17 year-olds!)
And we’ve met some amazing new people via The Academy also and had tremendous support from employers and individuals – far too many to mention here but you know who you are and we couldn’t have done it without you.
Sorry – I never intended this to be so long and if anyone is still reading, I admire and applaud your tenacity. It’s ended up being a little bit of therapy for me writing it all down as, while there has been lots of stress and challenge, I’ve answered my own question without doubt: yes it’s all been worth it and yes I’m very glad we did it and I’m looking forward to our next cohort (April) and to starting all over again in July.
And, most importantly, to seeing our first cohort ‘graduate’ in July – they’ve all said they want to wear caps and gowns and the lovely William from JW Lees is providing the venue and some lubrication so it should be an amazing and proud afternoon for all. Photos to follow. On Twitter of course!