Why aren’t apprenticeship schemes reaching their full potential?
A view from Kate Burnett

Why aren’t apprenticeship schemes reaching their full potential?

DMA Talent's general manager discusses the main challenges limiting apprenticeship uptake and what businesses can do to improve their success rate.

For young people who are keen to enter an industry straight after school or college, apprenticeships are the perfect opportunity to gain knowledge and experience while also receiving an income.

But despite the plethora of opportunities apprenticeships offer both businesses and emerging talent, they are on the decline and not reaching their full potential.

Recent data from the Individualised Learner Record (ILR), and Apprenticeship Service and Office for National Statistics' Inter-departmental Business Register (IDBR), portrays a gloomy outlook for the future.

Since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy in 2016/17, small and medium-sized enterprises have seen significant declines in the number of apprenticeship starts (down by 51% and 54% respectively), while large businesses returned a smaller decrease of 11%.

Last year, the number of matched apprenticeship starts fell in every tier measured compared with 2018/19. Small enterprises (those with fewer than 50 employees) recorded the largest decrease in matched starts of 19% – equivalent to about 18,600 fewer starts.

DMA Talent, the Data & Marketing Association’s talent division, conducted research into the "must-have" skills for the data and marketing industry in 2018. The data revealed that 62% of the surveyed sample used apprenticeships and a further 32% were interested in using one.

So, what is holding back a third of the businesses from taking on apprentices?

The DMA interviewed senior professionals to learn more about their use of apprenticeships, what was working well and what challenges they faced. 

In addition, we learned what businesses, the government and industry bodies like the DMA can do to make apprenticeships more successful.

Apprenticeships offer many opportunities

The interviewees revealed the key benefits of employing an apprentice. Many stated that apprenticeships made their talent acquisition more diverse, with the benefit of fresh perspectives from the young talent coming through from a variety of different backgrounds. 

It was also highlighted that they help to develop a more capable workforce with specialist skills, as apprentices often learn educational theory while developing practical work experience.

Apprenticeship programmes have the potential of making the data and marketing industry more representative of customers and UK society. In addition, a diverse talent pool will bring fresh perspectives to a business while helping it to support its local community. It can help local talent to develop skills that aren’t currently available in a specific geographical area.

Apprentices, often experiencing work for the first time, can be moulded into a well-rounded employee, learning directly from the best: you. In other words, they can become your business’ tailor-made, most qualified specialists. They can grow in tandem with your business and will have an eagerness and desire to upskill. Moreover, they won’t bring bad habits learned in other organisations or teams.

DMA Talent’s research also found that apprentices are normally recruited based on their soft skills (eagerness to learn, passion and so on) and personality, rather than their technical skills or experience in the sector/industry. This approach helps organisations to cast a wider net and choose the best suited candidate(s) for their business.

Challenges limiting uptake

Our report also identified several key challenges that are limiting apprenticeship uptake across the industry.

Despite the levy being the main driver to start an apprenticeship programme, there is confusion about what it can be used for – especially about why it cannot be used to upskill current staff or put towards other forms of training beyond apprenticeships.

There is also widespread concern regarding the stipulated agreement that a minimum of 20% of an apprentice’s time must be allocated to their studies – especially for agencies built on fee-earning models. The challenges and priorities of work versus learning are ever present. To help resolve this, a degree of flexibility must be considered by businesses and educational institutions.

Brands’ boardrooms are considered to be the hardest to engage with for programme development and funding by many organisations. SMEs, meanwhile, struggle more than larger organisations to justify the resource needed to support an apprentice.

Organisations also highlighted an ongoing struggle to find training providers that are accredited for data and marketing apprenticeships.

Finding solutions

With more support and guidance for businesses, we can increase the number of apprentices across the industry. But we must improve senior stakeholder buy-in, as well as understanding of the apprenticeship levy, and help organisations to discover accredited training providers.

Apprenticeships need to become part of the overall talent strategy – driven by the boardroom, so they become embedded in the DNA of a business.

The skills that businesses can pick up from managing a diverse team can only be beneficial for the organisation, as studies have already shown. Knowing this and being able to bring evidence into board-level discussions might make a big difference on the decision of whether to start or continue an apprenticeship scheme.

The best way to ensure apprenticeships won’t turn into wasted opportunities is to ensure they have the incentive of a future and role with the business. During the programme, apprentices should be given constant encouragement from across the business and feel like they are valued.

Having a cohort of apprentices can be very helpful, but make sure it’s an inclusive community so they get to interact with all departments. Simple things like creating regular catch-ups with various departments will help them to understand how the business operates and make a difference to the success of an apprenticeship programme.

Our research discovered one of the main challenges limiting the uptake of apprenticeships was finding a good training provider. To help, DMA Talent has partnered The JGA Group to deliver accredited apprenticeship training. JGA is a specialist in marketing and communications apprenticeships.

From March 2021, JGA marketing apprentices will be able to access content from the Institute of Data & Marketing (IDM) as part of their training. This partnership will enable apprentices to enhance their ongoing professional development and gain access to additional industry qualifications.

Tips to improve apprenticeship programmes

The insights gathered from senior professionals, across both agencies and brands, has provided us with unique guidance on what businesses can do to improve the success rate of their programmes.

Take responsibility. Apprenticeships aren’t just a tick-box exercise; they are an opportunity to enhance the output of your business and gain a fresh perspective. Therefore, as a business, you need to decide how the programme can deliver these valuable opportunities. A thoughtless approach on the set-up can lead to a very frustrating experience for both sides.

The apprentices will put their trust in your business from day one. Therefore, you need to make sure they can access everything that is necessary for them to get their qualification and receive a purposeful and professional experience.

Plan in advance. Before starting, it’s key that you plan objectives and decide how an apprentice’s training and time can help achieve them. It’s important that these are discussed with those employees who are directly involved with the programme. The senior management team, HR and line managers must all dedicate time and be ready to offer support.

Apprentices should have a clear schedule, understand the long-term vision for them, and be able to ask questions. In addition, line managers need to have access to relevant sources of information and training to guide young talent.

Include in-person interactions. Of course, meeting in person has been hard for the past year and each one of us has had to deal with Zoom and Microsoft Teams fatigue. Therefore, bear in mind how hard it could be for someone new to the workplace to join, learn and build skills remotely. At home, apprentices lack that sounding board and morale boost that a team and office can naturally provide. Regular contact and transparency are both essential.

All the insights gathered from these interviews are available in our Apprenticeships: The Hidden Potential report.

Kate Burnett is general manager of DMA Talent