What to consider when setting up an apprenticeship

From assigning tasks and lines of report to finding the right time for training and the need to go back to basics, there are many things brands must bear in mind when taking on an apprentice.

Source: Shutterstock

The uptake of marketing apprenticeships remains stubbornly low.

According to Marketing Week’s 2023 Career and Salary Survey, only a third of participants work at companies that run a marketing apprenticeship. More than half say no such scheme is on offer, while 12% don’t know if their colleagues include apprentices or not.

A lack of time and resources, not being able to see clear benefits, and avoidance of complications were key reasons given for the lack of involvement in apprenticeships, in a sector where it is difficult to have a conversation that doesn’t include the phrase ‘talent shortage’.

Are those barriers to employing apprentices as insurmountable as they are perceived to be? If companies are having so much trouble recruiting staff with the right experience, why are they so resistant to train people from the ground up?

Apprenticeships: Over a quarter of brands blame time pressures for slow uptake

Former Direct Line CMO Mark Evans works with The School of Marketing to encourage young people from under-represented communities to become marketing apprentices. In a sector which is crying out for creative and diverse talent, and given appropriate funding, that should not be difficult, he says.

“In theory with the Apprenticeship Levy it should be a doddle, but actually it’s just hard. There are many barriers to change,” he says. “What seems to be strange is that companies have absorbed the Apprenticeship Levy as a kind of tax and written it off.

“It could be a free fighting fund to pay for apprenticeships, but it just hasn’t really landed. It probably is a bit of effort up front, clearly through the last couple of years people haven’t been recruiting as much, and now tougher times are coming still,” says Evans.

Mutual benefit

Yet companies that employ apprentices report positive outcomes. Food brand Birds Eye is one of those that has seen success with marketing apprentices, and is happy to share its experience.

“We’ve had two marketing apprentices work for Birds Eye,” says head of media Colin Buckingham.

“It has been great to take on a young person and train them up in marketing, to give them an opportunity. I personally found it quite hard to get into FMCG marketing so I can sympathise with others finding it difficult.”

There have been mutual benefits to both the company and its recruits from the arrival of the apprentices, although the process can begin with a steep learning curve for everyone.

“You have to remember that they have never worked in an office before, so some of the things we might see as second nature you have to train them in; this is how we book meetings, this is how we diarise,” explains Buckingham. “Once you have got through that barrier then you start to really unlock the value and you start to see the apprentice grow.”

At Birds Eye, support for the apprenticeship scheme goes far beyond the marketing department. Indeed it was HR that originally suggested to Buckingham that he might take on an apprentice. He was quick to agree, but the level of apprenticeships industry-wide suggest that appreciation of the concept is not spread evenly.

We have different apprentices in different parts of the business, but we also try to make sure they come in a cohort, so they have a community and can learn and network together.

Jessica Priest, Digitas

While it would always be hoped that apprentices will benefit from their work experience, companies clearly do not all appreciate the level of benefit they can get from the apprentices. According to Buckingham, this can be substantial and comes on many levels.

“I don’t want to think of anyone as ‘just’ an apprentice, I want them to be adding value to my team. The apprentices who have worked for me have been doing valuable jobs for the marketing department. Examples would be they have run our ecommerce brand bank system, they have updated our website, created graphics with designers, they have taken over quite a lot of different processes and some of the back room administration for the marketing department,” he says.

As well as helping the apprentices learn about different systems and tactics used in marketing, it also encourages them to meet people and network within the company. It allows other staff members to grow and develop too.

Having an apprentice within a team can remove time-consuming tasks from other members of the group, giving them space to stretch and develop, perhaps through further training. “You are training your team by having an apprentice. For example you can give a member of your team line manager experience, to manage the apprentice,” says Buckingham.

His team is currently reviewing how it will develop its approach to apprenticeships over the next year. It is currently without an apprentice, but for the best of reasons.

“We haven’t got an apprentice at the moment, because we’ve just given her a full-time role. When we get the next gap in the team perhaps that is a route to fill it,” says Buckingham.

Birds Eye found its marketing apprentices via The Marketing Academy Foundation, a charitable offshoot of The Marketing Academy that seeks to help people from less advantaged backgrounds to get a career start in the marketing industry.

7 things you can do now to democratise marketing

Fewer barriers

Foundation CEO Daryl Fielding says that the initiative is working to drive diversity in an industry that is so middle class “it’s gobsmacking”.

She identifies a number of barriers to companies taking on marketing apprentices. One is that statutory apprenticeships can be too bureaucratic. As a result The Marketing Academy Foundation has created its own apprenticeship schemes, which operate in much the same way but with fewer complications, to drive participation.

But other barriers are harder to break down, and some of them are based on habit and tradition. “I just think it’s inertia, about always doing what they have always done. They have never done apprenticeships so it is not part of their business as usual. Breaking ranks in a big corporation is a lot of effort. Mostly what they are doing isn’t broken, so there is not much of an appetite to fix it,” says Fielding.

However, opening their minds to new ideas could pay dividends, she suggests. “The talent shortage seems to be the current business lament, and yet people aren’t building their pipeline in different – not even creative, just different – ways,” says Fielding. “I have an orderly queue of bright young people and they have an appetite to add diversity to their organisations.”

‘Grow your own’ talent

Some companies have embraced this idea and are choosing to “grow their own” future talent.

Within the marketing sector, some large agencies have been keen to bring in apprentices and are now convinced of their worth in terms of both work output and future planning.

Marketing agency Digitas, part of Publicis Groupe, has been running marketing apprenticeships for five years, gradually increasing the number of people in each intake until it reached double figures with its current apprentices.

“From my perspective, the more the merrier. The benefit they bring to the business is huge,” says Digitas human resources director Jessica Priest. “There is a massive push and focus on looking at apprentices as a way to get entry level talent into the business,” she says.

Beyond short-term benefits are some longer-term payoffs. “The main benefit is you are pipelining for your workforce. The qualification the apprentices are gaining is very vocational, very specific to what we do as an agency: data analytics, project management, looking at that through a digital lens,” says Priest.

The agency also finds apprentices that remain with the company tend to stay longer than other junior recruits. “It helps us to grow our own talent and ensure that when people are leaving we’ve got succession plans and we can promote internally. Basically we are future-proofing our workforce,” she explains.

Apprentices from the most recent cohort to join are all moving into permanent roles within the agency.

“They are stepping up into those roles after finishing their apprenticeships. We tend to find that because it’s their first job – their first ‘proper’ job – that they are incredibly loyal and tend to stick about a bit longer than other entry level roles, or any other roles to be honest. They know they are getting a huge benefit of development and learning, and that continues after their qualification finishes. We’ve got a lot of support for them in terms of continuing to develop through the business. They really see the benefit of that and it keeps them here,” says Priest.

Remembering that apprentices are very young, generally school leavers, and supporting them appropriately is a key, she adds. Digitas managers are given training on how to help the apprentices, and each apprentice has a ‘buddy’ within the company as another point of contact.

“The managers understand that they are coming in with no experience of office working – or of working anywhere else – and that they might need a bit more time and core investment up front… sitting down with them, showing them where things are, telling them that it’s OK for them to go out for lunch,” says Priest. “We have now got quite a good pack, to support managers through how to look after them and how to support them.”

The apprentices who have worked for me have been doing valuable jobs for the marketing department.

Colin Buckingham, Birds Eye

How apprentices are selected, recruited and trained is also an important part of the process. Digitas works closely with Multiverse, its provider of apprenticeship services. Multiverse does the initial rounds of recruitment and checking, ensuring that applicants meet eligibility criteria for an apprenticeship, as well as providing the formal training element. Apprentices spend one day per week in training.

“We have different apprentices in different parts of the business, but we also try to make sure they come in a cohort, so they have a community and can learn and network together,” says Priest. Each apprentice works out with their managers which is the most convenient day to use for training. Managers also seek to tie in work tasks with the study curriculum.

“We make sure they get exposure to the things that they need to study. Specifically in Digitas we’ve got such a breadth of capabilities and different skills, lots of different things going on, that we can allow them to rotate round the areas that they need to do, to actually achieve their qualification,” says Priest.

“There is a lot of support there around being flexible around what they might need exposure to, in order to achieve their qualification. But ultimately that benefits us, because it means they’ve got a well-rounded view of what the business does, very quickly, by trying to tick off those points of their qualification.”

At a time when experienced staff are so hard to come by, will more companies now join the push to train the next generation in-house?