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Calling for the industry to get behind apprenticeships

Sara Whybrew, BFI’s Director of Skills and Workforce Development, calling for industry to get behind apprenticeships.

My old boss used to say that had she known apprenticeships would be so difficult she might not have tried working with them, but she also used to say anything that is important and worth doing never seems to be easy. That boss was Pauline Tambling, who played a huge role in the arts education and training world for four decades, and she sadly passed away in December. But the legacy she leaves behind is significant: she created initiatives and progression routes that have supported thousands of young people to pursue a career in the creative and cultural industries. In her final days, she made one last call to the sector to proactively drive the development of its own workforce. 

Apprenticeships are spoken about a lot in my work, but not necessarily in the way I would want them to be. In the screen sector they are perceived by some to be burdensome, not fit for purpose, and expensive. But, the screen sector hasn’t yet maximised the use of this route. Through my career in the creative industries, I have directly and indirectly supported the creation of hundreds, if not thousands, of apprenticeships. The ones that don’t work are by far in the minority, yet it seems to be these that dominate apprenticeship conversations. Why? It’s not only the occasional apprenticeship that doesn’t work out in the workplace, I’ve seen this happen across all kinds of roles at all levels of seniority, and with those who bring significant experience, so why set such high expectations for apprentices?  

To proactively address our sector’s inherent concern about apprenticeships, I believe we need to think about our culture and attitude rather than the route itself. Nothing is perfect all the time. Independent research from the St Martin’s Group on apprenticeships shows that this route works, and the Social Mobility Commission reports that those from lower socio-economic backgrounds often outperform their better-off peers in an apprenticeship. That in itself presents a huge opportunity for the sector to diversify its workforce in terms of class representation, which so often intersects with other characteristics typically underrepresented in our workforce.  

Evidence also shows sustained employment is common via this route as are reports of increased productivity. The 20% off-the-job versus 80% on-the-job training structure hasn’t been created on a whim, it is a proven recipe for a robust approach to training: underpinning knowledge is developed alongside establishing job-relevant skills and behaviours needed to learn the requirements of a role.  

We’ve listened to the industry and we know the current structure is really challenging for production. Discussions with the Government are ongoing and we are currently working with the Department for Education to pilot structural changes that will enable the contracting of apprentices in line with the realities of production timeframes, meaning the current minimum 12-month continuous employment rule for apprenticeships will be waived. The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education is also reviewing Apprenticeship Standards to make sure they are fit for purpose, working with employers to do so. These Standards are what set the competencies an apprentice needs to gain during their training to be deemed competent by the end of their apprenticeship. There’s also some commitment to exploring ways in which the industry itself can help design, develop, and deliver the off-the-job training curriculum for sector specific apprenticeship options.  

However, to take full advantage of these changes and the opportunity this presents, we also have to ask what more needs to be done for the screen sector to think differently about apprenticeships?  

Often, reference is made to ‘freelance roles’ being the reason apprenticeships can’t work, but in truth there is no such thing as a ‘freelance role’; there is either work that needs to be undertaken by an individual, or services that need to be contracted for delivery. Where the former applies, apprenticeship opportunities can exist. Apprenticeships are a structured route for training people to do the jobs we need people for, and at all levels of seniority and responsibility. 

There have been ongoing calls by the sector to flex the apprenticeship levy, so this can be used to support other training options. Whether this remains an apprenticeship levy or a general skills levy, we must be careful what we wish for. Government skills and training levies rarely generate pots of money to be spent freely by those that pay in, Government skills and training routes are typically subject to standardisation, regulation, and quality assurance. And whilst we know there are other effective on-the-job training routes in the industry, I think all agree training programmes should be subject to these things if we want to set minimum training standards that honour the ‘science’ of quality and meaningful learning programmes.  

Given this, I invite the whole sector to firmly get behind apprenticeships and to work with us to find ways to make them work structurally, before seeking to develop or support other options, not least because we know this route helps us reach and train new and diverse talent in ways many other training routes don’t. At the BFI we also recognise we must practice what we preach, so we are also looking at growing apprenticeship opportunities throughout our own organisation. Other sectors have made this route work well, surely our sector isn’t so different that it needs standalone options. If there is data that proves otherwise, I would gladly review it and feed it into our work on this issue.  

Training the workforce isn’t easy, it shouldn’t be, because doing a job well takes effort and so does helping someone learn. None of us come into the workplace knowing how to do everything, even if we have years of experience under our belt. The ability to learn and develop is a unique gift of the human condition, and one we should value and have tolerance for, particularly if we want our workplaces to be more productive, creative, representative, and nicer to work in.