Another way in Apprenticeships in the creative and cultural industries

First published on November 2011.

I don’t think many people in the cultural sector expected the newly-formed Creative & Cultural Skills to make apprenticeships a key skills priority in 2006. Employers weren’t crying out for them; most said that they’d like to have apprenticeships for graduates rather than engage with younger people. However, as we survey the scene today, there are around 900 level 2 and 3 (roughly equivalent to A-level standard) apprentices in the sector from a standing start of zero in 2008. We’ve made a start but there are a lot of lessons here about achieving cultural change for a new, fast-growing sector when the education systems have been established for many years and move very slowly.

It may not be known to some people, but apprenticeships have been at the heart of some of the most established areas of the creative industries for hundreds of years. The Goldsmiths’ Company, for example, has been running indentured apprenticeships since 1334. These five-year programmes place an apprentice with a ‘Master’ and conclude with the production by the apprentice of a ‘Masterpiece’.

In its more modern conception, an apprentice works four days per week as an employee learning ‘on the job’ and attends a local further education college one day per week for structured learning. This is a straightforward approach, but I have since learnt of the challenges of applying this model of learning to the creative and cultural industries.

The setup phase for creating the capacity for apprenticeships in the creative sector has been arduous and painstakingly bureaucratic. Money for apprentices goes directly to training providers, so first off we had to recruit some colleges to our cause. Further to this, though, colleges can only access apprenticeship funding through a relevant awarding body offering the apprenticeship. However, awarding bodies need to create apprenticeship frameworks, built on National Occupational Standards (of which none existed for the sector). To create a framework from scratch takes at least ten months and is particularly difficult when awarding bodies are sometimes hesitant over the business case of developing new qualifications in an untried area.

Added to this complicated process is the sheer number of areas where an apprenticeship could be developed. Since 2008, we’ve established around 14 compliant frameworks in design, community arts, costume and wardrobe, live events and promotion, the music business, cultural and heritage venue operations, jewellery and silversmithing. But behind all these areas there are very specific job titles. In jewellery, for example, there’s a gem setter, a polisher and finisher, a diamond mounter and silver spinner – to name a few. To date, we’ve mostly created level two and three frameworks. However, it is vital to ensure that the higher level apprenticeships are created for young people to move on to the next level of their learning.

Creating the capability for an employer to take on an apprentice is just one side of the problem. When people think of apprenticeships, they think of large companies – BT and Rolls-Royce are often-cited examples of this. In the creative industries, though, challenges which would never occur to these larger firms are myriad. Firstly, businesses in the creative industries are usually tiny. With such a large number of firms employing fewer than five people, the ability to take on apprentices becomes a burden on the employer.

Secondly, the nature of their work is often more erratic than that of a large employer. Portfolio working, seasonal productions and contract-based work all mean that there are few guarantees that apprentices will have steady work. To address this, we’ve set up an Apprenticeship Training Service to employ apprentices on behalf of employers and where we can we let employers share apprentices to fit in with their work patterns.

Despite bureaucratic and systemic challenges to our progress, apprenticeship development has led to change. Already we’re seeing a major cultural shift. Our sector has tended to recruit from highly-qualified graduates willing to take on long-term free internships. This has meant that we’ve limited our entry level jobs to a very particular group of candidates; no wonder our sector fails to reflect the social and ethnic mix in the country. Put baldly, we’re missing out on a lot of untapped talent; apprenticeships are making a difference. Secondly, not all the entry level jobs are graduate jobs. Graduates use entry level jobs to get a toehold in the sector but often move on very quickly, leaving small businesses recruiting every few months and not getting the continuity or long-term commitment they need. Furthermore, certain jobs need real vocational skills, particularly in areas like technical theatre, and therefore the apprenticeship route is genuinely more relevant.

Recent research shows that employers are genuinely impressed with their apprentices and see the initiative as making a real difference in the sector. It hasn’t been easy to get this programme going but it feels like it’s worth it.

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