Caroline Thomson: Apprenticeships Conference

Date: 20.06.2012     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 17.54
Category: Corporate
Caroline Thomson's speech at the Apprenticeships Conference held at the Radio Theatre, Broadcasting House, London on 20 June 2012.

Last week I spent my lunchtime in Hackney. I was chairing a workshop for young people interested in working in journalism. It was part of the Radio One and Radio 1Xtra outreach work - the Hackney Academy. Helping young people get some skills and a taste of what life might be like in the 'creative industries'.

The audience listened attentively as we described how we had got on in our careers - an ITN journalist who had been given the confidence and start she needed through working on 1Xtra when it launched. A 16 year old who was running his own successful blog while studying for his AS levels at a local school. And a man who had landed a job on The Guardian online service based originally on his travel writing when he had been a student. And me, who had done it the easy way - a former graduate journalist trainee with the BBC.

A good illustration of the really varied ways people get into media jobs now. But also an illustration of the problems facing those of us who got our break all those years back and are now trying to establish and run successful companies. It used to be that you simply recruited from the best universities but today's skills are much more varied, the entry points different, the mindsets required more flexible. For those seeking jobs there are advantages in the modern media world - the ability to find your own voice online. But the very openness can make it seem more impenetrable. The media is so fragmented, where do you start when you know no one and have no experience? As one young man asked me at Hackney: "how do you get yourself noticed"?

Today's event, and the whole issue of apprentices is about closing the loop - bringing both sides of this problem together and finding a solution.

Let me talk first, from a hard headed perspective of someone in a senior position in the media industry.

When it comes to making sure we’ve got the best talent working for us, there are two big issues we’ve got to crack.

1) The need for more diversity is a critical business issue. Society is changing at a bewildering pace. Communities up and down the country have radically different and often divergent experiences and aspirations.

We, the broadcasters, need to produce great content that resonates with the lives of ALL the people we’re trying to reach. So while of course we need people who are bright academically, we need more than that. We need people who bring with them a variety of life experiences and attitudes that reflect those of everyone, whoever or wherever they are.

To do this we have to go out and actively look for talent in new places. It is no longer enough to sit back and wait for them to find us. And here you have a happy coincidence of interest. Because our need to search for diverse talent also helps promote fair access to our jobs. I passionately believe in giving all talent, wherever it comes from, the chance to join us and to flourish.

And absolutely fundamental to this is giving opportunities to the brightest and the best from the broadest range of backgrounds. Talent exists in all walks of life – it may not always be easy to find, but it’s there, and it’s our job to seek it out.

We need to question the amount of informal recruitment that goes on in our industry – which has often got more to do with ‘who you know’ or who your parents know, and whether you’re rich enough to put in unpaid work experience to get a foot in the door.

It’s all too easy for all of us to go on recruiting in this way. We pay lip service to diversity but at the moment, I think the jury’s out in terms of whether we’re trying hard enough as an industry.

2) The second big issue we’ve got to crack is some pretty challenging skills gaps – a lot of them driven by the extraordinary pace of change in technology. It’s now all about how we support different digital platforms and digital workflows… and the huge potential to bring together technical and creative innovation to encourage an explosion of brilliant new ideas... and we all need those! Ninety years ago when the BBC was founded the second most important person after the Director-General was the Chief Engineer. In the modern media world we are moving back to this territory. Without great creative software engineers and technicians we cannot remain competitive.

But we’re up against stiff competition when it comes to recruiting this sort of talent. All kinds of companies now face their own technology skills gaps – and they’re hunting for the brightest people at 18... offering prestigious alternatives to university where you ‘earn as you learn’… and there’s no student debt!

We’re going to have to work much harder to fill certain essential technical jobs. And we won’t do this by pinching other people’s skilled staff – there just aren’t enough of them to go round – we have to increase the size of the pool. And that means training.

The Creative Industries are seen as a key growth area for the UK economy. And the Creative Industries Council, chaired by Vince Cable and Jeremy Hunt – see skills development as an integral part of this.

But one of the most challenging dynamics we have to tackle is the structure of our industry... a few big broadcasters and indies and a huge range of smaller companies (84% in the creative industries are SMEs with fewer than 10 people).

So we’re all in very different places when it comes to investing in new talent – and it’s going to take some imagination and determination to work together to ensure we make a difference.

In January, a group of employers convened by Creative Skillset (here today) produced a skills report for the Creative Industries Council – effectively a call to arms for employers to get more involved. And one of their main recommendations is for us to consider taking on more apprentices... crucially, making sure these opportunities are of the highest quality and give genuine opportunities for career progression.

If it ends up being a revolving door where young people come in only to go straight out again, we will have failed.

So I want to spend a few minutes setting out how I think the BBC might help - working with other smaller companies to make it more affordable and simpler to invest in apprentices.

In order to help do this, along with others, the BBC has made a bid to the government’s Employers’ Ownership Pilot fund which, in our case, if we’re successful, will help us to scale up some of our plans and share them more widely.

What would we do?

I think a logical first step is to start with ‘skills gaps’.

Over five years, our ambition is to grow a new generation of highly skilled technologists and engineers - made up of Level 5 Apprenticeships (that’s equivalent to degree level) and beyond that Traineeships up to Masters level. Once trained, this talent will be available to work either in the BBC or for others in the industry.

Just imagine, you could be an 18 year old who embarks on this journey and by the age of 23 you come out with a Masters education, no debt, AND you’re highly employable. That doesn’t sound like a bad option in today’s economic climate, and it’s also extremely good for us in terms of growing the new technology talent that we need.

Everybody wins and we’ve already had considerable ‘in principle’ interest in this approach.

More generally, we’re investigating how we can develop ‘career pathways’ in other areas where we have skills gaps. For example, many of us report shortages in Production Management skills – so it would seem sensible to start to ‘grow our own’ rather than keep poaching from one another.

Again, apprenticeships are the answer. In this case new, higher level apprenticeship qualification, building on Creative Skillset’s existing Level 3 qualification. We are proposing to launch a more advanced Level 4 qualification which would allow people to progress.

As you have been hearing the BBC currently has 55 apprentices. They receive their formal training from FE colleges, and that feels right for that intermediary qualification. But as we move into higher level qualifications, we believe it’s really important for the training to become far more industry focused and employer led.

So the BBC Academy plans to take on responsibility for training the BBC’s higher level Apprentices. We’re hoping that this will inject a real sense of added prestige to the Apprenticeships and make them even more highly sought after and highly prized across the industry.

And with both production management and technology apprenticeships, the BBC is offering to ‘over-hire’ apprentices on behalf of other smaller companies in the broadcasting industry. Effectively, we would do the recruitment, pay the salaries, do the training and also manage all the bureaucracy around running apprenticeships. Then we’d offer them out to the industry on a paid placements basis – with companies only paying the pro rata salary for the duration of the time that they buy.

That’s it. No more extra costs and no more hassle and bureaucracy.

For the business model to work, it needs a critical mass of companies to support the approach. The bottom line is that the BBC has got to cover its costs because we can’t put licence fee money at risk. But this, it seems to me, is one of the things the BBC is here for. Yes, making great output is our central raison-detre, and we must never forget it. But if, alongside that, we can use the privilege of our secure funding, our size and our reputation to be a catalyst and partner, helping to build successful creative industry across Britain – then we should do this with verve and enthusiasm.

Yes the plans are ambitious, and they will definitely involve a few headaches along the way, but all of this is entirely achievable - it just needs a critical mass of industry support and I’m pleased to say much has already been received and the injection of some additional, short term public funding to help us get started – because, of course, whatever we do, needs to be self-sustaining in the longer term.

Thank you to all of you who’ve been involved in helping us shape these plans so far. A lot of you are in the room today. We’ll know whether we’re in a position to press the ‘go’ button sometime over the summer.

And good luck to everyone else who’s put in a bid for money to support your plans – the more of us who get involved the better!