The publishers and the Apprentice

Suzanne Kavanagh • 25 April 2012

The publishing industry is not addressing its skills shortages and lack of cultural diversity in the right way, Suzanne Kavanagh argues.
It's that time of year again, when The Apprentice assaults our TV screens with the "I'll give it 120%, Lord Sugar" brigade. In fact, Lord Sugar has long been a strong supporter of apprenticeships in the UK, and has even been an ambassador for National Apprenticeship Week. This year, Creative Skillset was not only involved in National Apprenticeship Week, we helped organize the launch. Our work across the Creative Industries means we have developed apprenticeships in fashion and textiles, photo imaging, and creative and digital media. And yet traditionally this is an area in which publishing has not been interested.
Do we want only graduates?

In 2011, Creative Skillset published a report into the skills gaps and shortages that the industry faces. The findings show that half of the publishing workforce is comprised of graduates, rising to 70% in the book sector. Of those who hold an undergraduate degree, the most common subjects are media-related, languages and literature, culture or history.

At the same time there are persistent gaps in the existing workforce and new entrants around digital, technical and commercial skills. Of the 13% of companies who had vacancies, 36% reported they were hard to fill as they couldn't find candidates with the right skills, particularly marketing, creative talent, software skills and multi-skilling.

More than a quarter (28%) of publishing employers report a skills gap within their current workforce, with sales and marketing, technical and software, business and entrepreneurial, leadership and management skills the main areas. These skills are also the ones employers predict they will continue to face shortages in.

We found a distinct lack of cultural diversity in the industry. Just 4% of the workforce is from a minority ethnic background (down from 5% in 2008). The average across creative media is 6%, rising to 9% across the economy as a whole. This has been widely reported over the years: from the Decibel report to In Full Colour, and the work of the Diversity in Publishing Network. Yet little progress has been made. Sadly, we appear to be going backwards.
The problems of recurring skills gaps and a lack of diversity and equality of access are repeatedly articulated. But what are we doing differently to address them? Is the fact that we continue fish from the same graduate talent pool an unintentional, but perhaps unavoidable cause?

Breaking into the industry
There are many ways into the industry. One of the most popular is to undertake some kind of work placement. The benefits to the individual are well documented: from gaining direct experience in an area of interest, gaining new skills, adjusting to working life, and building networks, to increasing opportunities for future employment.

For employers, a good work placement can improve the skills of new talent coming into the company, develop management mentoring ability, and raise the profile of the organisation and its careers opportunities. It is also possible to diversify a team by finding new ways to attract hard to access talent.

There are six general forms of work placement: volunteering, work experience, internships, student internships, traineeships and apprenticeships. We have worked with various bodies from across the creative industries to define clearly each type of placement, and set out the laws and best practice around them. These guidelines can be found here.

There's something about apprenticeships
When we spoke to employers only 5% said they currently used apprentices, but 34% said they would consider doing so in the future.

Traditional objections to apprenticeships have ranged from relevance (they are for manual labour or trade roles only) to concerns about age (too young, not enough experience, wouldn't fit in or have the right attitude). They also include quality issues (lack of grammar and English language skills) thanks to the legacy of earlier, less successful models.

But if we are being honest, could our main objection come down to old-fashioned snobbery? The prevailing attitude appears to be that we need highly educated and intelligent people in publishing, and apprentices, well, they just aren't right for the job.

The irony is that it wasn't always so. There are many examples from the book industry and related sectors of senior publishers who started their careers straight from school as secretaries or assistants, of local newspaper editors who began as non-graduate apprentice trainees, and of course writers who labour away perfecting their craft for many years before publication. 

Sectors such as TV and Advertising - traditionally ones with a graduate intake - are now embracing apprentices. And frameworks are now more responsive to employer needs: Creative Skillset's Creative and Digital Media Apprenticeship scheme has a flexible range of qualification units so the employer can tailor the programme.

Training providers are stepping up in terms of the quality of off-the-job learning, with better facilities and understanding of the requirements of businesses. In addition, as of May, Creative Skillset will be extending our Tick quality mark to the very best apprenticeship provision.

Government is funding development of Higher Level Apprenticeships (HLAs). Equivalent to the first year of undergraduate study, they will tackle the need for higher level skills and critical thinking in certain roles. We are developing these HLAs for the creative and digital media, fashion and textile and advertising industries. In addition, cash incentives have been introduced to encourage small businesses to take on apprentices if the positions will lead to permanent jobs.

The tide is certainly turning. Large employers are now talking about a "mixed economy" with their talent pipelines. Small companies are interested in bridging digital skills shortages using Creative and Digital Apprentices. Is this a different way to recruit that may find its place in the industry? I have a feeling that we'll find out in the next 12 to 18 months.

Suzanne Kavanagh is Partnership Manager at Creative Skillset