BLOG: Degree or apprenticeship? It's not a stupid question

It's National Apprenticeship Week, and I'm off to experience an apprenticeship in action. At a PR firm. Gulp, says Emma Haslett.

by Emma Haslett
Last Updated: 13 Jul 2015

It’s a hoary old truism that journalists and PRs are at loggerheads, but it’s also true: socialise with any number of either side and sooner or later the topic will come up.
So an invite from PR firm Four Colman Getty to shadow its apprentice was rather a daunting prospect. Would they pelt me with eggs? Would they force me to make endless rounds of tea? Most terrifyingly, would they make me cold-call journalists ‘just to check if you got my email’?
But actually I found it rather intriguing: what on earth is a PR firm doing launching an apprenticeship scheme?
Frances Church is the company’s first apprentice. She’s 19 (a decade younger than me, give or take a couple of years. I feel, to use her supervisor’s phrase, ‘older than God’), and she commutes in from Bedfordshire every day. Frances got a place at University of East Anglia after her A-Levels but turned it down because she knew what she wanted to do and was keen to start earning.
‘If I had gone to university, I would be £30,000 in debt straight away, without food or accommodation expenses,’ she points out. Also: ‘student accommodation is horrible.’ Which is true.

After a year on the scheme (it's four days a week, with one day off to study, which she divides over two afternoons), Frances will find out in April whether she has got a full-time job at the firm. She isn't worried about what will happen if she isn't offered a place at FCG: she says she'll simply apply for graduate roles at other firms.

Four Colman Getty apprentice Frances Church peruses the UK's best business magazine

I’ve always thought of apprenticeships as something for tailors, brickies and, er, loriners – more the preserve of strapping lads in high-vis jackets and steel-toed boots than this fashionable young woman.
But actually, you can take on an apprentice in any industry: according to the National Apprenticeship Service, the government body which oversees them, apprenticeships now cover more than1,500 roles in 170 industries, ‘from nursing to graphic design, horticulture to electric vehicle engineering’. The number of people doing them has doubled since 2009: over 200,000 workplaces in England now offer apprenticeships, and in the last year, more than 520,000 people – Frances included – have started one (the number broke the 500,000 mark in 2011/12). The Public Relations Consultants Association launched its scheme a year ago.
PR isn’t exactly an industry that wants for qualified individuals: if the same number of people wanted to work in engineering as want to work in the meeja, James Dyson might finally stop complaining about the skills shortage. But Dotti Irving, FCG’s chief executive, says launching the scheme was a chance to inject a bit of diversity into its workforce.
‘It’s been terrific having Frances on board as our first PR apprentice. We’re learning as much from her as she’s learning from us.’
‘The issue of youth unemployment is consistently on the news agenda and we felt, especially given the range of education accounts our Campaigning team works with, that we should do something to demonstrate our commitment to this issue.’
In the event, my induction into the frightening world of PR was pretty benign: yes, I did make a round of tea (Frances can carry three cups at once. There’s a transferrable skill, if ever I saw one), and I got to look up my profile on Gorkana, the PR database which has near-mythical status among journalists, who don’t have access to it.
The truth is that up until a few years ago, apprenticeships were pretty unfashionable, but they became one of David Cameron’s flagship policies, and he deserves praise for the effort he’s put into them. If more employers can be persuaded to take on young, up-and-coming types like Frances, the ‘lost generation’ might have a chance at finding themselves. 

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