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Training Matters: Apprenticeships – are they for us?

Joanne Butcher, chief executive of the National Council for the Training of Journalists, addressed delegates at the Society of Editors regional conference yesterday as part of a panel on journalism apprenticeships. Here is her speech in full.

I’m sure it hasn’t escaped your notice that everyone’s talking about the increasing popularity of apprenticeships. Well, maybe not everyone but certainly those who move in training circles…and some royal circles.

National Apprenticeship Week last month marked the announcement of over 20,000 new roles and much trumpeting from government as well as employers who have experienced the benefits first hand of hiring apprentices.

Apprenticeships are targeted at school leavers. They are an opportunity for young people to earn while they learn. The cost of the learning is paid for or subsidised by government. Employers can pay an apprentice level salary – and it can be much cheaper and, some would argue, more effective than hiring and training graduates.

For our industry, recruiting school leavers is nothing new. Those of a certain age will know that the vast majority of new entrants into journalism used to be indentured, were trained in the regional press, and attended block release or day release training at college. In those days it was unusual to be a graduate.

But now, most aspiring and new entrants are graduates – even though many editors say you don’t need a degree, and more specifically, a journalism degree, to be a successful journalist. Some even go as far as to say it’s a hindrance.

In promoting apprenticeships today, I certainly don’t want this to be an opportunity to criticise degrees. The NCTJ supports different routes into journalism to meet different needs.

Those of us who have had a university education will know the advantages we have enjoyed even though we might not always be able to articulate the vocational benefits. Journalism is very well served by colleges, universities and independent providers that supply NCTJ-qualified graduates and some non-graduates. Trainees who already have the NCTJ diploma and good work experience can usually make an excellent contribution from day one.

Apprenticeships provide an alternative route into a journalism career which many think is in danger of becoming even more elitist, when most of us agree newsrooms need a mix of people from different backgrounds.

However, apprenticeships have their critics too. Government funded schemes suffer from associated bureaucracy and movable funding goalposts. They are at risk of being used as cheap labour, temporary jobs or glorified work placements that provide an extra pair of hands.

When the NCTJ decided to develop a journalism apprenticeship with employers, we were determined to avoid these pitfalls.

The government agrees and some of the apprenticeship systems are being reformed. I’m pleased our sector will be helping with this work as one of the government’s ‘trailblazers’. Gone is the need to have a separate apprenticeship qualification for its own sake. Instead there is an emphasis on, where possible, linking with professional qualifications as we have done. Promises have been made to give more control to employers, to simplify the systems and to introduce grading. We will also use this opportunity to make some changes to the entry level apprenticeship and to look at progression to senior status. Do let me know if you would like to be involved.

Ours is a sector that is nervous about any government interference.

So is it really possible to have an employer-designed and government-funded scheme?

It’s true that we have found the system a challenge to navigate. We have spent a great deal of time trying to ensure the system will work for our sector. As one of our own board members said during one of our debates: I’m probably being over sensitive but my experience leads me to believe anything to do with government means a pile of red tape.

So we have been very clear that apprentices should be trained to the NCTJ gold standard and should have the opportunity to complete the industry’s professional qualifications. The apprenticeship training providers are the same colleges that meet the industry’s accreditation standard, and not opportunist providers looking to milk the system. Off the job training for apprentices will be available at seven further education colleges running our long established accredited journalism courses.

The pilot programme is running at Lambeth College. It’s a day release course over two years. Apprentices on the scheme include those from Archant, the BBC, The Independent, KM Group and London Evening Standard. It started last September and a second cohort will start this September. Roz McKenzie, head of journalism, is here today and will be able to answer any particular questions you may have about the off-the-job training and the finer detail. Roz features in our brochure about apprenticeships and there are first-hand accounts from editors and apprentices, answers to frequently asked questions and a list of training providers.

There is freedom in the apprenticeship programme for training to be designed to meet the specific employer needs. For example, the 45 BBC local radio apprentices will do blocks of off-the-job training at the BBC in Birmingham, provided in partnership by the BBC College of Journalism and Wolverhampton College. On another programme, six BBC radio production apprentices are completing the journalism apprenticeship as well as the additional training they will need for their specialist roles.

What about the bureaucracy that turned off many from the old NVQs? Well, the NCTJ and the college training provider can take a lot of the hassle away and can provide advice on the rules and responsibilities.

Working closely with you, we will organise the training, exams, workplace assessments and progress checks. There are employer forums to bring together the learning at college and on the job.

We will hear first-hand from three apprentices on the Lambeth College pilot. Earning while they learn is an opportunity for young people to acquire journalism skills and to practice the craft without being saddled with debts from tuition fees. Most employers are paying salaries that are more than the minimum requirements.

Employers involved offer real jobs. As a minimum, you should offer an 18-month contract. Yes, apprentices are raw and may not hit the ground running and take some time to settle in, but they are ready and willing to be moulded. You will need to ensure you have resources to support your apprentice – a mentor at the very least.

You should stand a better chance of recruiting the people you want direct from your communities. Recruits will already know the patch and hopefully the product too. Although there is support and guidance on offer, you are entirely responsible for recruitment and selection of your apprentices.

You will have a direct input into their training and mentoring; important skills like shorthand, media law and ethics can be reinforced in the workplace.

All the journalism apprentices I’ve met come with a passion and tremendous enthusiasm for journalism. They are extremely high calibre, as we will see shortly, and have been very carefully selected indeed.

The investment made can bring huge rewards. Editors have said that this enthusiasm can be infectious in the newsroom and can have a positive impact on the team morale.

So if you haven’t considered apprenticeships yet, do talk to us and people like Doug Wills of the Evening Standard. He is one of those people who can tell you first-hand what the benefits can be of home grown apprenticeship talent.

For more information on journalism apprenticeships, please visit


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  • April 8, 2014 at 9:06 am

    Excellent idea, let’s hope the industry supports it. Sometimes you have to turn the clock back 40 years to make progress!

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  • April 8, 2014 at 9:40 am

    Once again the leadership of the NCTJ show they have little understanding of the newspaper industry.

    At a conference where editors set out the ‘new’ system with a much reduced staff the NCTJ suggest apprenticeships.

    Great idea – 18 months of subsidised labour. You can then change them for a new batch !

    Who is going to mentor these kids after all the staff with experience have been cut ?

    What happens to the 1500 trainees on NCTJ courses ?

    Neil White, an NCTJ board member, apparently told the same conference newsrooms of the future will be much smaller. But still the NCTJ leadership want to train more and more people for a job that is ending…….

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  • April 8, 2014 at 10:33 am

    One of the best ideas the industry has had for years. Through family circcumstances, I would never have been able to enjoy a 40+ year career in journalism had I needed a degree. What goes around, comes arouund.

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