Why I didn’t sack my apprentice

Before I begin my story, let me lay my cards on the table.   This will help the reader understand the context and perspective that lies behind my tale.

I run a digital marketing and web business and so I employ people. I am also a regular guest lecturer for @SkillsetSSC, Cirencester College and a prestigious music college (@BIMMBristol).

I teach apprentices digital marketing and I’m in a fortunate position to be one of the first lecturers to teach higher level apprentices.  I get to talk to people in education, employers and learners.

I also take on apprentices. This post is about one particular apprentice, for the purposes of this post, this apprentice is called “Josh”. That said, the reader would be under the impression, especially with the title of this blog article,  that with my background I might be in a good position to get it right when it comes to finding and employing an apprentice. But, my story here does have a happy ending and like most stories where we tell you the ending first, it’s the journey that’s important and how we reach the ending.

Recruitment isn’t optional

I guess I’m stating the obvious here, but recruitment is not something we do out of choice, we do it because someone leaves a position vacant and the operation of our business depends on it or we do it because our business demands more people to sustain our operation. We can’t stand still in other words.

In the industry I operate in, the creative digital industry, there is a skills gap.  I just struggle to find good people with coding skills, you don’t easily get “oven-ready chickens” from school or college that have:

The desired technical skills
The desired marketing skills
An understanding of the specialist and niche agency culture

Those already employed that apply for our jobs have varying skills and qualities, some demand  higher than desired wages (because they are in demand), others can be “old dogs”, who find it hard to learn “new tricks” in an ever changing technical environment.

The apprenticeship journey

I went down the route of employing an apprentice after I attended an event organised by Cirencester College and Creative Skillset at BBC Bristol.  This was a creative industry apprentice showcase for recently graduated apprentices. The stories were transformational for both employer and apprentice. I came away inspired and  thinking: “I want one”.

So along comes Josh.  Josh walked away with the job because he had excellent interpersonal skills.  He had been savvy enough to catch our attention on social media and had passed a remote web test we had set all applicants – so we could assess training needs from the outset.

When we got to month four of Josh’s employment, it felt like “Houston we have a problem”.   Yes there were mistakes, then more mistakes, some quite silly and careless, but even allowing for the extra support, things weren’t sinking in for Josh. Some of the issues centred around what we feel are simple tasks like message taking and finishing tasks.  Our apprentice wasn’t showing any initiative and wasn’t thinking for himself.

We reached an impasse, the operation was being affected.  I turned to Cirencester College and let them know we had a problem.  I felt awkward as this was an apprentice, a young person and I was someone who taught apprentices as well.  I didn’t want to fail as an employer, I wanted a transformational story and success with my own apprenticeship.

Problem solving

With the support of Cirencester College  I openly discussed the problems with Josh.  This was documented and we gave Josh goals and a clear understanding of our expectations.

We gave Josh the opportunity for a right of reply and we ensured we didn’t affect his esteem or confidence.  Three months later at the next review, matters hadn’t improved and perhaps had got even worse.  Josh told us he just didn’t have the knowledge-base to understand what he had to do, while his manager told me “I’ve told him 5 times now how to do this task and he still doesn’t get it”.

Imagine if you have an assistant that is there to support you, but your time is started to be pulled more into supporting them, this is a double whammy for a small and niche company and it can hinder output and affect morale.

Josh’s performance was assessed again (he hadn’t improved).  Once again with Cirencester College there to support both sides, Josh was told that the matter was getting serious, especially as basic and essential tasks to any office (let alone any technical skills) were still not being completed satisfactory.

Time passed. The office continued to be very busy with increased work-load, but something started to click into place.  I started to hear less about issues with Josh and noticed his confidence grow along with his commitment – he would go the extra mile to help his colleagues.  His line manager started to trust him to deliver and he would rise to this expectation.  Josh started to be part of our team.

A lesson: The question of how to think, I think!

Clearly investing in a young person’s potential in this case took 9 months to show it was the right thing to do.  This is a big investment of resource for any SME.   When Josh told his manager: “I just don’t have the knowledge”,  what he needed was simply the ability to think for himself and show initiative.

My view is that the foundation of any web work is thinking and solving technical problems, using programming code.  But the place our young people come from, schools and colleges, may not equip leavers with this essential ingredient: To think and work things out for themselves.  Let alone entry-level programming skills or even just working in an office as part of a team.

You can’t always be told in the work place “what to do” and “how to” at every moment, you have to show initiative.  Is there too much box ticking  in education these days and perhaps even spoon feeding facts?  I’ve seen this in: Here’s your exams and here the content, you guys can put the two together, right? In a result driven education system is this the outcome?  If this is the case then everyone is under pressure, the schools to deliver results, the students when they do find work and then the employer who can’t find the right people to fill their vacancies.

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