Has higher education shut the door on print apprentices?

Melanie Defries
Monday, April 16, 2012

Leeds City College's decision to close its in-house print facility is yet another blow for print industry training, especially when set against a decade of decline in the number of skills-based print courses available in the UK.

In essence, the college has changed its NVQ Level 3 Machine Printing course to an "industry-based apprenticeship model", which means that rather than students attending college for practical training, from next September the qualification will be conducted online and "in industry", with no teaching on campus.

The decision to withdraw college-based learning followed a review of the "educational and financial" viability of Leeds’ programmes, which, according to Leeds City College deputy principal for teaching and learning Jane Taylor, highlighted the college’s "successful work" in developing an industry-based apprenticeship model.

Many in print disagree with the suggestion that the industry can fill the void left by further and higher educational institutions seeking to manage constricted budgets.

Training consultant and former Polestar group training director Darrin Stevens says: "We used to have technical colleges that trained people to work in the sector. Now these have gone and there’s just a handful of training providers still running print courses. The skillset is going; the BPIF is doing as much as it can, but is mostly training managers and not equipping people with skills. Most businesses simply do not have the time to train people properly."

Stevens argues that businesses alone are not always able to train staff to a high level.

He adds: "We need a combination of college- and industry-based training because businesses don’t necessarily have time to train people properly. Many years ago, we had a committee of 10-15 print companies who would say to the colleges ‘these are the skills we need’. Standards need to be put in place and recognised by the industry."

Stevens’ views are echoed by Mark Snee, managing director of Leeds-based Technoprint, who highlights Ofsted’s recent inspection of Polestar’s government-funded training programme, which is managed and delivered by Leeds City College, as an example of the limitations of an industry-based training model.

While Ofsted said the quality of provision was satisfactory, it ranked the overall effectiveness of provision and outcomes for learners as "inadequate", noting that success rates for learners were "significantly below the national average".

Snee says: "If you take the Polestar programme as the prototype of industry-based training, it is evident that there are gaps that need to be filled by college courses.

"What we need is adaptable courses where students can branch off and pursue different areas of interest. They need to be able to acquire as many skills as possible and not be pigeon-holed."

In-house facilities
Such a course can currently be found at Leicester College, one of the few remaining educational institutes that still has an in-house print facility.

Oliver Whitbread, business delivery manager of the Creative Arts and Media Department at Leicester College, explains: "Leicester College offers a full range of training from NVQ and apprenticeship programmes to bespoke training, work experience and sponsorship across the print sector."

So if Leicester College is able to sustain its in-house print facility, why are other educational organisations such as Leeds City College unable or unwilling to hang on to theirs?

An educational source tells us that the reasons are manifold, but that the blame can be laid at least partially on an industry that is seen as having done little to market itself to young people.

He says: "If you speak to a lot of young people, they do not have any idea what a print career would involve. There has been a decline in the number of students wanting to study print and this, in turn, means that training providers are less likely to be willing to offer it. Training requires a large capital investment, and here there is not the promise of a  great return.

"The reality is that for the past 10-15 years, young people have been pushed towards university because government policy has been aimed at increasing the number of graduates. However, there is a real opportunity for print to attract young people now as more are realising that a degree doesn’t necessarily lead to a job and there is more interest in vocational qualifications."

Sadly, even if the industry was to throw its weight behind apprenticeships, such as those run by Leeds City College, many employers could struggle to obtain government funding, as Technoprint’s Snee has found from his own bitter experience.

Snee explains: "We ran an apprenticeship scheme and it was the best thing we ever did, but eventually the bureaucrats came along and said they wouldn’t fund any business that was taking fewer than 50 learners per year, which wiped out most of the print industry.

"We tried going into a consortium with other businesses, but it was a nightmare, with lots of paperwork and we didn’t get the funding we were expecting. It was so badly run that companies weren’t finding out how many apprentices they were going to be allocated until the very last minute."

It would seem that there are some valid concerns over the demise of college-based training, and a strong argument for a reversal of the trend. However, when there are so many businesses focused on staying afloat and so many  colleges under pressure to cut costs, the truth is that print training may not rank highly on anybody’s priority list.

30-second briefing

  • Leeds City College is to close its in-house print facility and change its NVQ Level 3 Machine Printing course to an "industry-based apprenticeship model"
  • Training consultant Darrin Stevens questions whether the print sector can fill the void left by the demise of college-based training courses
  • He advocates a combination of college- and industry-based training as firms don’t always have time to train staff to a high level.
  • Technoprint’s Mark Snee says there is a need for broad and adaptable college courses where students are not pigeon-holed
  • Many colleges don’t want to run print courses because of the large capital investment required, according to an educational source
  • Print needs to do more to market itself to young people
  • SMEs may struggle to attract government funding for apprentices due to the required minimum intake of apprentices per year


What will industry training entail for tomorrow's students?

Brian McGee,
Managing director, Newsprinters
"Industry-based NVQ-type learning experiences based within the working environment, as opposed to within the classroom, are the way forward. It’s more cost-effective and practical. We do a lot of training and have worked with organisations such as Leeds City College to develop qualifications. We’ve got to achieve a balance between the formality of the qualification and the practicalities of the business. With apprenticeships, you can have a foundation stage where staff get a general overview of the business before they specialise."
Dani Novick
Managing director, Mercury Search
The recession had a dire impact on the uptake of training. Few companies are prepared to pay for training if it’s not seen as absolutely critical. It’s unfortunate if things get to a stage where studying print is not an option for students, as those who want to go to college will go and study something different anyway. College-based courses focus on the theoretical and practical . They attract a different kind of person to those who go straight into industry. Many of the senior managers and directors we see in the industry today have gone via college."

Mick Hart
Proprietor, Thistlebank Graphics
"From a commercial perspective, it doesn’t makes sense to pay someone to go to college when they can learn to do most things on the job. Of course, it doesn’t help print in the long-term, but is anyone thinking about the long-term? What’s different is that when I went to college, you learned the industry as a whole and not just the job that you were doing. Nowadays, someone like a bindery manager wouldn’t have a clue what goes on in a pre-press department. In the short-term this is fine, but the industry could become disparate."

You can read BPIF chief executive Kathy Woodward's comment here


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