What’s the problem with marketing apprenticeships?

Marketing Week’s Opening Up campaign is calling on brands to democratise access to marketing careers. A starting point would be addressing the persistent slow uptake of marketing apprenticeships.

Source: Shutterstock

Beset by a cost of living crisis and global uncertainty following two years of Covid, brands are in desperate need of talent to drive their business forward.

Yet, despite the imperative to close the skills gap and push for greater diversity of thought, companies are failing to address the lack of socio-economic diversity within their marketing teams.

One way to open the industry up to diverse talent is to rethink recruitment. However, with graduate schemes providing a traditional talent pipeline, the uptake of apprenticeships remains sluggish.

Department of Education statistics show a “steady decline” in participation across all apprenticeships, falling from a high of 908,700 in 2016/2017 to 713,000 in 2020/2021. Some £330m in unused apprenticeship levy was returned to HMRC in 2019/2020 alone.

Criticism is being felt at the highest levels of government. In his spring statement, Chancellor Rishi Sunak said the apprenticeship levy would be reviewed to determine if it is “doing enough to incentivise businesses to invest in the right kinds of training”.

Marketing Week’s 2022 Career and Salary Survey reveals the uptake of marketing apprenticeships remains painfully slow. More than half (57.9%) of marketers work for a brand with no marketing apprenticeship.

Of the 4,463 marketers surveyed, 21.2% say their company does not currently see the value in apprenticeships. A further 10.4% say it is too complicated to develop a programme, while 6.6% cannot get buy-in at the highest level.

Having an exclusively middle-class function can’t be a good thing for your organisation.

Daryl Fielding, The Marketing Academy Foundation

While some marketers say their business is too small for an apprenticeship, others report having no budget, or point to an existing graduate scheme. Others admit their brand has not considered such an initiative, or they are “too busy” to implement it. One marketer responding to the survey said the “standard of applicants was poor” when they researched apprenticeships.

Layer on top of this sentiment the broader challenges faced by business and it is clear why marketing apprenticeships are suffering, says Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) director of qualifications and partnerships, Maggie Jones.

“How does one day a week off for study work with hybrid working? Lots of organisations are struggling with that. We’ve got sustainability, we’ve got SMEs facing rising business costs. Apprenticeships are going to fall down the agenda unless it is really simple,” she argues.

While recruiting new talent could prove a great fix for businesses struggling to cope, the opportunity is not top of mind with marketers, says Jones. The lack of awareness is stark given it is five years since the first marketing apprenticeships standards were introduced.

“It’s the fifth anniversary and we’re sitting here saying exactly the same thing that we were saying five years ago, but we’re layering those additional complexities on top,” she points out.

“You’ve got people who are too busy to untangle what apprenticeships actually mean and on the other side you’ve got a whole tranche of young people who are completely disenfranchised by education. I’m not hearing very many good news stories.”

Apprenticeships: A fifth of marketers admit their business ‘doesn’t see value’

Founded to enable talent from low socio-economic groups to enter the marketing industry, The Marketing Academy Foundation has helped 40 people access a career in marketing since 2017, including 37 apprentices. With an initial vision to get 100 people into marketing, CEO Daryl Fielding is exploring new ways to help, from employability bootcamps to mentoring.

“We have a scalable, commercial model. It’s just persuading companies that this is something they will benefit from, where they can bring in talent they wouldn’t otherwise find and get brilliant young people who don’t come from middle class backgrounds,” she explains.

It is not unusual for the foundation to spend time and energy meeting with the marketing director, HR lead and other stakeholders in an organisation, only for good intentions to lead to little action.

“If I were working as the CMO of a big organisation again I would absolutely do it. But sometimes it falls on the ‘too difficult’ pile and everyone over the past two years has been living on fumes with Covid, restructuring, resizing, back to the office, a third of people at any one time being sick, etc,” says Fielding.

She explains that in many cases landing an apprenticeship comes down to the “iron will” of senior marketers, committed to attracting people from different backgrounds.

Fighting misconceptions

Amid the strained business environment, lack of awareness, fear of bureaucracy and common misconceptions, the uptake of marketing apprenticeships is suffering.

Founder of Level 3 apprenticeship provider the School of Marketing, Ritchie Mehta notes a significant lack of awareness about the levy itself. Currently, organisations with an annual payroll of more than £3m are taxed at 0.5% of their wage bill, money they can use to fund apprenticeships.

Mehta explains SMEs often don’t realise they can also benefit from the levy. All they need to do is go on the government portal, reserve the funding, name how many candidates they want to hire and on which standard.

The persistent awareness problem is compounded by the fact apprenticeship levy contracting often falls outside the typical procurement arrangements in larger companies, says Mehta.

“Because the levy pot sits almost on the side of the organisation, the procurement elements are undecided and it’s all a bit tricky. So, when we’re onboarding with big institutions, we always come across an ambiguity in the process and that creates a delay,” he explains.

Some brands are also being held back from hiring apprentices by a misconception the calibre of talent is poor. Many employers Mehta speaks to are basing these views on one bad experience and concern regarding the commitment involved if the apprentice isn’t a good fit.

“Every conversation I typically have is: ‘What happens if the apprentice is not performing the way they should?’ They think because it’s a 15-month term they’re then locked into that individual for 15 months and there’s additional bureaucracy to get rid of them. Which there isn’t,” he explains.

“The apprentice can take the apprenticeship to their new organisation and move it along.”

School of Marketing promotes value of apprenticeships in ad debut

According to the Department of Education, apprenticeship achievements decreased by 14.3% to 50,900 from August to January, versus the same period the previous year. Compared to the same period in 2018/19, achievements are down by 31.5%.

Covid restrictions have impacted apprenticeship completions, with some courses being delayed and people dropping out of the workforce. At the onset of the pandemic considerations were made for apprentices who were furloughed or made redundant. Apprentices could, for example, apply to base a live project on work from their previous organisation. Those adaptations ended on 31 March.

During the pandemic it was difficult for apprentices who were made redundant to find a new employer ready to support their apprenticeship, Jones explains. Indeed, apprentices are often unaware they can take their qualification to another role.

“If you start with an organisation and you think ‘It isn’t going well, I’m going to move and take my apprenticeship to another’, it’s possible but it’s not easy,” she notes.

“If you look at the amount of people who did drop out from apprenticeships when they were made redundant it would be quite high.”

Flexibility needed

The dropout rate is a concern for Mehta, who believes employers often fail to understand what is required and in some cases the apprentice is left to fend for themselves. However, he also believes learners should be prepared to commit.

“Because you’re not paying for it yourself it’s very easy for someone to turn around and say: ‘I don’t want to do this’, or ‘I’m having a bad couple of weeks with my employer or my tutor,’” he notes.

A further issue hampering apprenticeship uptake is the rigidity of the standards. The Institute of Apprenticeships currently lists seven statutory marketing apprenticeships, ranging from a Level 3 marketing assistant (with a funding limit of £7,000), to a Level 6 digital marketer (with a funding limit of £21,000).

Developed by a trailblazer group of employers, each standard consists of knowledge, skills and behaviours, which should be reviewed every three years.

The standards tend to be quite granular because employers want to drill down into specific skills, says Jones. Given the end point assessment plan requires that all knowledge, skills and behaviours are evidenced to pass, this can prove challenging if the work is not technically part of your role.

If you think about the rational argument for apprenticeships, it’s a no brainer.

Ritchie Mehta, School of Marketing

“It may be that there is a documented conversation between the person who does social media to show the apprentice has had an input. But you create this jigsaw with lots of pieces and you say: ‘It’s a 1,000-piece jigsaw and you’ve got 10 minutes to do it.’ If it had been a 10-piece jigsaw it would have been ok,” she explains.

“Sometimes there is that disconnect between the standard, what employers want to put in and that being very hard to assess.”

Jones is calling for greater consultation between employers, training providers, government and end point assessors to devise less rigid standards that meet the needs of learners. She also believes reviews should be more frequent and less onerous, ensuring the standards are updated with the latest thinking on topics like sustainability or data analytics.

Mehta agrees greater flexibility is needed to help apprentices succeed. He outlines a Catch 22 situation, whereby to be eligible for a marketing apprenticeship the candidate must demonstrate a lack of sufficient knowledge, which often means their role won’t allow them to evidence all the behaviours.

“You can see the dilemma that exists, because you almost need to get them in a perfect digital marketing role, but then who is going to hire them into a digital marketing role if they haven’t got some level of experience in that area?” Mehta questions.

A brighter future?

Despite the considerable barriers, The Marketing Academy Foundation is looking to the future with purpose. The charity is planning a “lighter touch” programme to help people from tough backgrounds enter marketing, while maintaining its flagship apprenticeship initiative.

Fielding urges marketers to confront the homogeneity of their talent pool by measuring the ethnicity, gender and socio-economic background of applicants, not just successful hires.

“Start to review socio-economic background in entry level positions. You’ll probably find something of a shock. Our belief is that the socio-economic profile is the most significant thing that will be the tide that floats many boats on diversity,” says Fielding.

“Appraise yourself of the real talent out there. Have you really looked at what you could have? Having an exclusively middle-class function can’t be a good thing for your organisation. As with any diversity agenda, everybody is finding they have to start with the pipeline, from the bottom up.”

She questions whether brands can really afford to walk away from an enormous untapped talent pool, urging employers to look for “potential rather than polish”.

Seeing the value: How apprenticeships are being used to unearth fresh talent

The need to futureproof the talent pipeline is pressing. Mehta points to 2020 research from the CBI, suggesting 90% of the UK workforce will need to reskill by 2030. Suddenly the opportunity to upskill existing employees via apprenticeships takes on greater significance.

Ultimately, Mehta recognises the apprenticeship issue as a classic marketing challenge around mental availability and emotional resonance. Rather than being front of mind with young people, teachers, careers advisors and parents, apprenticeships can feel like an afterthought amid the pressure to attend university.

Given marketing apprenticeships are in their infancy compared to degree education, Mehta is aware change will take time and a shift in thinking.

“If you think about the rational argument for apprenticeships, it’s a no brainer, but this is a great case where people don’t purchase based on rationale. It’s based on emotion and that’s why those who can afford to go down those typical, traditional [degree] routes do,” he adds.  “They base it on an emotional decision, not a rational one.”

Opening Up brandingMarketing Week’s Opening Up campaign is pushing for the democratisation of marketing careers. Follow our coverage of the challenges and opportunities over the coming weeks.