What’s in a Brand?

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Are we in danger of trying to stretch the Apprenticeship brand to the point that it becomes overused?

Brand management is an issue which occupies the minds of the corporate world and makes an army of advisers very rich across the planet. The wider skills system has two potentially powerful brands – both with a long lineage and both of which desperately need some form of brand management: “Academies” and “Apprenticeships”.

From The Academy Awards to the re-branding of failing schools, there is a real issue of brand awareness and credibility here. Unfortunately, this is often exacerbated by individual employers branding their internal training scheme as Bloggs’ Academy. The term is always used to impart a “quality” feel but over-exposure is having the reverse effect.

In the case of the Apprenticeships brand the position is a little different. For a start, the formal definition of an apprentice is one we can all understand – “a person who works for another to learn a skilled trade”. This is almost the only definition so there is little chance of confusion in that sense although aficionados of the turf will recognise that an apprentice jockey is one with less than a year’s experience who has won fewer than forty races!

So, in Apprenticeship we have a very powerful brand that goes back hundreds of years and has a real quality feel to it as a result of that legacy. Until recently, the only corruption of the brand was courtesy of Alan Sugar and his TV phenomenon which has helped real apprentices about as much as the TV show “Benidorm” has boosted the Spanish tourist office.

However, current adverse publicity raining down on Apprenticeships could be much more damaging to the brand and I wonder the degree to which that is fair. I for one welcomed both the previous administration’s belated focus on apprenticeships and the way the coalition has moved that forward.

Its funding predecessor, Train to Gain, was flawed at many different levels and open to abuse by large employers who used it as a vehicle to get their normal training funded. In some cases, this abuse was exacerbated by not even including actual training in the model. This resulted in so-called deadweight levels (training funded by the public purse that would otherwise have happened anyway) approaching 80 per cent. This was clearly not a justifiable use of public money, especially as it was the larger employers who almost exclusively benefitted from the governmental largesse. A key difference between Apprenticeships and Train to Gain is that the former enshrines the need to train and impart knowledge to the apprentice. In policy terms, this becomes important when linked to the need to considerably raise youth employment levels.

However, many sectors find it difficult to employ sixteen year-old school leavers in the working environment and logistics is one of them. That does not mean to say there are no opportunities so to do but not on a massive scale. The 18-24 age group offers more potential, as does 25+.

However, if the learning and knowledge transfer is right for 16-24 year-olds going into a particular job, is it not also right for somebody over 25 who is either just entering the sector or wants to move from one role to another (eg warehouse to wheels). To demonstrate the dilemma, let’s consider two examples. Person one is a 16 year old school leaver and Person two is a 34 year old who has just come into the sector after working in healthcare.

Person one gets value from an Apprenticeship by feeling they are getting developed into a skilled role – learning the ropes. They will perceive greater value if the programme lasts say two years as they will be picking up all aspects of the operation and they will get self-esteem from being an apprentice. Person 2 probably has a different outlook. For a start, their additional 18 years is likely to mean more maturity and an increased ability to take things in. Where this is the case, then there should be potential to move the course through much more quickly and deliver the changed state in maybe as little as six months.

This may be complicated even further by a reluctance on the part of the 34 year-old to be described as an apprentice. The 16 year old gets self-esteem among peers by being an apprentice. Does the 34 year old? In itself the content and the outcome of an Apprenticeship is something the sector and the rest of industry really needs, clearly illustrated by the fact that to date, more than 25,000 people in the UK have graduated with Skills for Logistics Apprenticeship Certificates.

It is an effective means of providing the skills necessary to do well in the logistics sector for entrants of all ages but are we in danger of trying to stretch the brand too far and in so doing, running the risk that Apprenticeships become as overused and over-confused as Academies?

Dr Mick Jackson is chief executive of Skills for Logistics.

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