How to get the most from apprentices in year one

Apprenticeships are a great way to encourage talent from diverse backgrounds into marketing, but the first year can be challenging for them and your brand unless you plan ahead.

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Apprenticeships are a relatively new addition to marketing departments. They are one means some enlightened leaders have chosen to make marketing less homogenous. Whatever the means, all have a responsibility to ensure diverse talent flourishes, but many may find this journey is trickier than expected.

Some employers The Marketing Academy Foundation has spoken to, excited by the potential of schemes such as Kickstarter, pulled back because the people they chose needed too much supervision. It would be such a shame if the first attempts to successfully integrate diverse talent fails. Everyone loses.

The Foundation has been working for six years with companies, providing apprenticeships, internships and traineeships for young people from tough backgrounds, so have learned much about what can drive success. We’ve learnt from our own mistakes and keep learning.

Talent from diverse backgrounds will be different. This sounds like a privileged glimpse of the screamingly obvious, but organisations don’t always plan for this.

There are a number of practical steps you as an employer can take to support individuals in their first year, without being patronising by setting them lower expectations or standards.

These are five things that we’d recommend from what we have learnt (so far):

1. Give apprentices managers with the appetite, patience and bandwidth to teach them both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’

This is particularly true for those organisations who are introducing apprenticeships or hiring people from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Those who are fresh out of school will be used to highly structured work and not have had the self-management experience of delivering team projects at university. They will need daily or weekly one-to-ones and a clear task framework as they evolve to the outcome-driven proactive working style that characterises marketing organisations.

Not everyone has the same expectation or understanding of work. Being sensitive to cultural nuances, but not allowing anything that could derail a young person, takes wisdom and determination. It is important to reframe and to encourage successful behaviours at work. Ensuring there is a manager who can show how to succeed in a management career, as well as how to perform the task, is crucial.

2. Give them managers whose level of experience is close enough to the new starter’s role, but who are good at performance feedback

If managers are too senior, even though they might be experienced, their understanding of the day-to-day may have faded. These more senior managers often over delegate and the career starters suffer.

At the other end of the scale, new starters are often managed by people who are managing for the first time and this is a great opportunity for them to learn and grow. They will be pretty good at explaining the tasks, unlike more senior managers.

Socio-economic diversity is the tide that floats many boats

But managing someone in their first job can be quite challenging, not least because the starter will have had no experience of being managed either. We are sometimes called in to resolve issues with our young people and it is nearly always the case that there has been a reluctance to address the matter directly.

It is also often the case the career starter did not know what was wanted or not. Simple communication resolved the matter. Holding back, allowing frustrations to build because of a reluctance to have a difficult conversation, isn’t helpful. Nor is making too many allowances because of someone’s background.

If necessary, train your managers to manage. And coach the new starter to ask for feedback regularly. The more regular the one-to-ones, and the more normalised these conversations become, the easier they are for both parties.

3. Give them roles with simple but meaningful tasks to start with and grow these in complexity and scope over the course of their first year

People thrive when they are given practical tasks they recognise the organisation needs. Status reports, project timelines, minutes of meetings, providing materials for shoots, uploading images to directories, managing a departmental inbox – all tasks that have served young talent well at the start.

Teach them the basics, then give them real responsibility for delivering. This is better than giving them longer-term projects, like competitive reviews or report writing, that takes them away from the day-to-day business and minimises interaction with colleagues, where most learning is gained.

4. Get them into the office as much as possible

This may feel reactionary. New starters need to be carefully managed in this regard. So much is gained for any individual in their first job by watching and learning from those around them. Yes, part of this will be learning to navigate the new normal on Teams, but so much more is gleaned from engaging with and observing the informal interactions that only happen in person.

We recommend that our apprentices go into the office three days a week, even if they sit with other teams because their team only gathers once a week. They will still learn from this and they will still make connections. Those small bits of assistance will be open to them. Asking quickly as someone heads to the loo or looks up from their computer is so much easier than taking the interventionist step of messaging someone.

You could describe this as ‘micro-support’. Small, but frequent and regular actions that have a profound effect over time. But it is definitely less present when career starters are in their bedrooms four days a week.

5. Connect them with others ‘like them’ in the organisation if you can and ensure that they meet with them on a regular basis

It can be difficult for those in a majority to understand how dispiriting it can be to not have any senior role models at work. Last year, reflecting back on their first year, two of our apprentices felt this had impacted their year at a wonderful company. They had met only once with another senior employee of colour.

The organisational demographics of building diversity from the ground up does put quite a lot of pressure on those individuals who can act as role models, but the organisation should encourage them to support diverse talent.

Much of this will apply regardless of a career starter’s background and some may simply be no more than good management practise. But in our experience, good practise is uncommon and is even more impactful for young people with less social capital. As I’ve said before, driving change is hard. We need to look at ourselves hard. If we care about diversity, we need to step up to ensure we do right by this new wave of talent.

Daryl Fielding is CEO of The Marketing Academy Foundation, a charity that finds young people from challenging backgrounds paid apprenticeships in marketing departments. 

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