How do you create apprenticeships out of thin air?

,  8 August 2014

I want to tell you about my experience working with a talented team of people to develop the first creative apprenticeships in the UK.

These apprenticeships were created out of thin air because they had hardly even existed in the creative industries before.

The potential of the UK's creative industries

As the illustration above shows, in the period that I was CEO of Creative & Cultural Skills, registered starts increased from a very low base in 2004 to more than 700 per cent over the next five years.

What kept me and everyone else going was the belief that we could help change the industry for the better.

That was made possible thanks to a dedicated team of people and a fantastic sector in the United Kingdom that has over 62,000 creative businesses, employing 800,000 people which contributes $43 billion in output to the UK’s economy where 85 per cent of the creative businesses and arts organisations employ less than five people.

The other staggering thing about the UK’s creative industries is their real and projected growth. Projected growth in employment in the creative industries is set to outstrip the growth of all other forms of employment growth in the UK by at least four to one.

So, whether it’s high art or pop art, the sector is renowned the world over for producing some great British artists in music, design, architecture and the public arts. But the creative industries are not just about the famous people you see in the media. For every one artist onstage, there are up to seven people supporting them backstage, in technical roles such as lighting, sound and wardrobe.

Bringing apprenticeships to the creative sector

Back in 2004, when we started the campaign to bring apprenticeship to the creative sector, I won’t deny how initially discouraging it was. I spoke to several employers who told me apprenticeship wouldn’t work in their sector. A common refrain was: ‘Why would we take on an apprentice when we can hire a graduate intern for free?’

Such a response was symptomatic of an industry that just couldn’t see the point of change. And why should they change, you might ask, when over 170,000 creative arts graduates are looking to join these industries each year? After all, the potential workforce supply is always going to be far in excess of the real demand in employment.

To be honest, the initial knockbacks my team and I received were somewhat discouraging. I came close to abandoning the creative apprenticeships project altogether. But what kept me and everyone else going was the belief that we could help change the industry for the better, that the sceptics were wrong and we were right.

Solving business problems with apprenticeships

When people tell you that apprenticeships won’t work – particularly outside traditional industries – it’s because we’ve failed to show employers that apprenticeships really are a solution to a business problem they didn’t perhaps know they had.

A common refrain was: ‘Why would we take on an apprentice when we can hire a graduate intern for free?’

That business problem could be defined to them as a solution for dealing with the lack of job readiness amongst recent graduates.

Or the fact that apprentices – when mentored properly – bring a whole bunch of added practical skills and loyalty in the workplace that cheap internships simply don’t.

In other words, strong apprenticeship systems are really about cultural values – they are about how employers and young people perceive these opportunities in contrast to the other choices and options available. I call this the apprenticeship ‘eco-system’. And, like any ecological systems, you can assiduously cultivate them or you can destroy them.

In the creative arts, employers at that time clearly valued graduate-only entry recruitment to hiring more diverse sources of talent. So, what we did back in 2004 was to set about launching a campaign to make employers think differently. We didn’t reach at them. We simply got to know a handful of creative businesses really, really well.

Three steps to growing creative apprenticeships

In very practical terms, we achieved the big growth in apprenticeship numbers by doing three things:

1. Understand the industry's needs

We set about understanding our customers’ needs, not through focus groups but by engaging them initially in a pilot apprenticeship programme. To do that, we had to assemble a great R&D team.

It was a big leap of faith for many of the employers, but we’d built up some trust with them to feel comfortable with what we were doing.

2. Test different approaches to apprenticeships

These early adopter employers then helped us test out different approaches to the apprenticeship and delivery. Some provided the apprentice with all of the necessary training while others worked with the local community college.

We also experimented with different types of financial subsidy, particularly with smaller firms, to ensure that the cost of participation was not a barrier.

3. Make apprenticeships something special

From day one, we built some real cache around the apprenticeship programme. We made the young people and the employers feel that they were part of something special.

Making creative apprenticeships the model for the future

The creative apprenticeship programme was independently evaluated in 2011. It found that 90 per cent of apprentices successfully completed their training and either stayed on with their employer as a qualified individual or they went into further education to complete a degree.

Importantly, 80 per cent of employers said that the apprentice added significant value to their business, and that they had changed recruitment practices as a result.

I passionately believe that in the twenty-first century it is possible to think differently about apprenticeships, to act differently in how they are implemented, and ultimately to make apprenticeships ubiquitous within the creative industries.


Tom Bewick is the co-founder, director and chief executive at The International Skills Standards Organisation (INSSO), an independent workforce development consultancy and standards setting body. 

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