Sky’s the limit for print apprentices

Darryl Danielli
Monday, March 18, 2019

Business leaders discuss their career journeys in print and apprentices share their experiences at an event to mark National Apprenticeship Week (NAW).






To kick off National Apprenticeship Week at the start of the month, the BPIF organised an all-day event at Bluetree Group in Rotherham, parent of the Route One Print and Instantprint brands, for some of its apprentices.

The event featured inspirational business leaders talking about their journeys in print, apprentices sharing their experiences and a full tour of Bluetree’s impressive factory. The day was rounded off with a PrintWeek-hosted panel discussion.

What was clear from the discussion was that while the apprentice’s passion for print was infectious, the industry as a whole needs to step up to the plate when it comes to promoting the many and varied career opportunities a print apprenticeship can offer.

What first attracted you to print?
Jennifer Miller I kind of fell into print to be honest. One of my friends actually got an apprenticeship here at Bluetree in 2012 and told me it was a really cool place and I should come work here, so I did. I just loved it from the get-go and never stopped.
Amy Elrington I fell into it too, in a kind of way. I came back from travelling and I realised that as I had been away from home already and was really poor from travelling, I didn’t really want to go and spend more money at uni – so I was looking for an apprenticeship and happened to find one at Webmart.

Did you have any pre-conceptions of print before you joined though?
Elrington I don’t think I had any knowledge of it. I didn’t know what you could actually do with print – at that time, I just thought of desktop printers when it came to print.
Miller I was the same, but now I can’t walk past any piece of print without touching it, but before I never really thought about print.

Perhaps we could throw that question out to anyone in the room: was print ever discussed at school?
All [Shake heads].

So, was it something that you all sort of fell into then?
All [Nod heads].

Guys, I think we’re on our own when it comes to talking.
Bailey I think we guessed that [all laugh].

Jon, you and Kelly spoke earlier about how you got into the industry – how has the industry changed since you started?
Kelly O’Sullivan Coming from the print buying side, I think to start with there was a lot of focus on having to buy it for the lowest price you can. But I think during my time in the industry, it became clear that you could only take that so far. For me now, yes, I do want a good price…
Bailey Did you just look at me as you said that?
O’Sullivan [Laughs] For me, it’s a lot more about innovation now. It’s about working with your marketing stakeholders and really understanding what the business is trying to achieve and coming up with something that really works for their end companies and maybe doing something that it is a little bit different. Really my whole ethos and that of my team is around how can we do something that is going to stand out. That’s where you get the cut through, that’s where people will really notice a piece of print. Like was said earlier, before we all got into the print industry, does anyone really notice it? Does anyone really even realise it exists? But if we can get customers, particularly with direct mail, to have something that drops on their doormat that makes them think “my God, that’s amazing”, surely that’s got to be a good thing – it’s good for the customer, good for the brand and good for the industry.
Bailey I just think that as an industry, we’ve been historically really bad at promoting what we do. We’re the first to say how expensive it is or slow it is compared to digital, we’ve been the first to knock the industry. We were a little too glass-half-empty. But what I’ve seen over the past five or six years, with these new companies, with new people, suddenly we’ve got our confidence back, our cockiness back – and I love that. That’s what’s attracting new people. Its self-fulfilling, because more of us now are going out to the market and saying what we’re doing is really valuable. What we do does add value to the marketing mix, it is more valuable than digital alone, it does get more cut through.

Can I ask the room again, did anyone at all talk to you about the industry before you joined? A few of you then. That’s a start. Because you’re right, we need to look at how we talk to people, to encourage more young people to join. Does the panel think there’s more we can do to encourage more young people to join?
Miller As we said, none of us here were spoken to at school about the industry. I think the industry should have a more active role in that. There should be more events like this, where we can see how modern the industry is and meet people who
are building careers in it, and see amazing places like this.
Ursula Daly One of the issues, and it continues to be, is schools themselves. They are not always keen, shall we say – and I don’t think this just effects print – to let employers through the door. I had hoped to see a change last year as there was a new clause that came in that placed an obligation on schools to promote FE [further education] as well as HE [higher education], but I haven’t seen the dramatic change that I hoped for. There have been some good things, like the Ravensbourne [University London] event last year, but if we could get to the kids while they’re still at school, that would have a massive impact. Two girls from that event went on a site visit to one of the London [print] companies that took part and their eyes were popping out of their heads the whole time. They got to make a box themselves on the day, and you would have thought they had been given a pot of gold by their reaction.

Do you think that’s something we all have to take responsibility for, and contact our old schools and ask if we can talk to the students?
Daly Our old schools, our kids’ schools, or our friends’ kids’ schools – because if we can find a way that makes it easy for the schools, and if the schools could tell us what we needed to do to be able to talk about the industry to kids – that would really help. We need to talk to anyone who is involved with schools, yes please.
Elrington Moving away from just the print industry though, I think apprenticeships in general are still sometimes seen in a bad light. When I was at school, I was told that I would do well in GCSEs, well in my A levels and then I should go to university and get a job after that. There’s almost a text book theory, and apprenticeships were viewed very negatively, or just thought of being in building or engineering. I don’t think the message about what an apprenticeship can offer, and the variety of possible roles, is really getting across.

But I suppose that leads on to how print is perceived – is it about dirty inky fingers or is it a high-tech industry?
Bailey We spoke about it earlier, Darryl. Not everyone can work at places like Google and you wouldn’t want to. 90% of the jobs there are probably rubbish. The innovation that happens in places like this [Bluetree] and businesses like ours is actually far greater, so is the opportunity for individuals to drive that innovation – it happens far quicker and is more rewarding because you touch it. I spoke earlier about things like shopper marketing, experiential marketing, database management, VR and augmented reality – all these things are related to our industry and its incredible.

And what does the audience think?
Karly Lattimore [MD, BPIF Training] What’s quite interesting in terms of schools and work experience, I was at debate a few months ago and there was someone from the print industry and someone from construction – this was before I joined the print industry. One of the questions was: what students are coming through to you for work experience? And it seemed that the print and construction industries were the ones that maybe the lower achieving students are more likely to be pushed towards. There didn’t seem to be the recognition that print is a progressive industry that needs highly-skilled people. One of the other interesting things in the debate was about raising the awareness of parents. It asked parents what they thought of apprenticeships – 90% thought that apprenticeships were a great way into work, but only 30% would allow their child to go into an apprenticeship.
Bailey It’s definitely not getting through. My eldest son is doing his A levels next year and we were at school recently talking about it. I mentioned apprenticeships, because I’m exposed to them and I get to see the real value of this sort of project, and I chucked it in the mix – and you would have thought I was swearing out loud.
Elrington I have friends who finished uni last year and I think that they feel like I did two years ago when I started my apprenticeship. So I’m two years ahead of them in some respects, because they’re going into a work environment now and its completely new to them, because lectures don’t prepare you for that.

But then how can we change the perception of apprenticeships, if it’s not just the schools and the kids, but also the parents that need to be convinced – how do we do that?
Daly I’m not sure of the precise numbers now, but two years ago we put together some numbers on two 16-year-olds – one does A level onto university and the other starts an apprenticeship. The apprenticeship calculations are done on the basic apprenticeship wage and if you take into the account the cost of going to university, less the lost income, so the debt that they’re accumulating, and what the apprentice is earning at the end of a 10-year period, the apprentice is £70,000 ahead of the person who went to university. That’s a very nice deposit on a house. The numbers will have changed a bit, but that is the reality of it.

Daly There was also a study published at the end of last year that showed that other than your Oxbridge universities, your earning levels are the same for HE and FE. It was always the story that we were sold that we should go to university because your earning potential over a lifetime would be higher – that is no longer the case. And even with Oxbridge, it’s higher, but it’s a minimal amount.
Charles Jarrold My sense, Darryl, is that there isn’t one easy answer to this. But getting across that it’s been a really exciting day today; that we’ve heard some incredible stories, that the businesses we’ve heard from are really exciting businesses is important, because that’s not always the perception of print. Working away at that is part of it, making sure we have really great apprenticeship schemes is another – showing the clear career paths they offer is too. We are always grappling about how we can prove the value to schools, and I think we need to do something similar to what we do with MPs to make it as simple as possible for print businesses and for MPs to have that dialogue. Because school teachers are incredibly busy, they don’t know how to talk to business, and business owners are incredibly busy too, so we have a role as a trade association to bring them together. I’ve been really disappointed to read some of the stuff today in the business press where there is still a woeful misconception of the value of apprenticeships. They were critical of the fact that only 20% of the apprenticeships were new apprentice starts – why does that matter? This is about giving great training, whether people were in employment before or not. In a world of student debt, apprenticeships are a great way to give people a great start.

On the bright side, for the apprentices in the room, of all the truly awful life decisions that you’ll make, because you’re young, you made one very good one – so congratulations.
All [Laughter].

In terms of the apprentices, where do you see your careers going?
Miller I’ve been asked that a lot in the past six months, and I don’t honestly know. But I definitely want to stay in the print industry – I don’t think would ever leave it, because I love it. But when I started my apprenticeship it was because I wanted to learn more about print, but now I want to help develop other people instead.
Elrington I wouldn’t say I have a clear direction either, since starting my apprenticeship I’ve been a PA, I’ve worked in client services, and now I’m more in marketing – so I think being fortunate enough to have tried a number of different roles, the
marketing route is the one I will go down in the print industry.
Neil Lovell [The Printing Charity chief executive] Darryl, I think an open mind is important and saying yes to things. Listening to the enthusiasm of the apprentices who have spoken today, they’ve all done more than one thing, it’s not about boxing anyone in, because it [a career] is a long time to think ahead. But how do we bottle what we’ve heard and seen today? Because that gives you something that inspires people to think I could do that, and then go and do it. The opportunities in organisations in this sector are far greater than many people think.

Adam [Carnell, managing director of Bluetree Group, which hosted the event] and Jon, what do you look for in apprentices – is there something specific?
Carnell We always say we’re looking for the person who had a paper round when they were younger, or has gone out there and done something, say led a football team. There are always a few flags that you can pick up on that tell you that someone will be good. It’s often about attitude.
Bailey There’s those little bits, the “X” factor, those people that light up when you’re talking to them. I like weirdos that smell paper in restaurants. [Laughter]. People who live it and breathe it are interested. If you’re interested in something and you do it in your spare time because you love it, then you apply that to the workspace. The best example is a techie guy at our place – he builds robots at home to close the curtains and stuff, and then he comes to work to build stuff, so I know he loves it. It’s someone that has that spark or that enthusiasm that does it for me.

And what about the apprentices, what attracts you to an employer?
Elrington Well, Webmart actually came into my school – so that was my link to the company. Beyond that though, it’s what progression path there is, what opportunities there are. I get bored quite quickly if I’m constantly doing the same thing. So, I like roles that are quite varied. I constantly get moaned at for being too impatient, because I always want to know what’s next, what training can I get. And, also, a friendly atmosphere is important.
Bailey What I find interesting about that is what you said about getting bored quickly and looking for the next challenge. What amazes me is that so many companies don’t understand the value in that. They just think: why is he bored already, or why is she bored, she’s only been here a year. Because that’s what our generation used to have to do, but now it’s different, cultures have changed, people have changed, technology is different – and we need to recognise that as business leaders and realise that we don’t have to treat our teams the same way that we were treated.

I suppose it goes back to one of the earlier points about communicating what the opportunities are?
Bailey Yes. But we shouldn’t be afraid to bring on new people and perhaps promote them through the business quicker than we have in the past, or having someone younger than their team at the top of the table. Why should we have this legacy issue of people who have been with us a long time, because if someone is better, regardless of age, they should be in that role, right? I think a lot of people struggle with that legacy issue.

Final question then: what one thing would you like to change about the industry?
Miller I wish there were more innovators in the industry. I’ve purposely aimed at companies that are innovators, but there are too many companies that are stuck in their ways, that have always done it this or that way. Those companies will die eventually if they don’t change, so I think we need to drive more innovation into the trade.
Elrington I think it’s how print can work with the other marketing
channels. One of the problems is that too many people consider print to be an old industry and everyone said that digital is the next big thing, but I think we need to work alongside it. Digital isn’t going to go away, but print isn’t either – so we need to look at how they can work together better.
O’Sullivan I completely agree. From a Sainsbury’s Argos perspective, we find that if you use print and digital together, you get much better response rates. But, for me, I guess it goes back to my presentation; the one thing I would like to change is increasing the number of women there are in the industry. 31% is good, but it could be so much better and if we can break down the barriers that are stopping women from being able to achieve the higher roles – then I think that would be good for businesses and good for the industry as it adds that diversity of thinking.
Bailey There are a few things, diversity is one challenge we need to work on. There is also a lot of work we need to do from a value perspective. There are a lot that get it – but still too many that don’t and are in a race to the bottom. They need to get their head around that proposition, so that we get the margins back in the industry. Probably 75% of companies don’t have the margins that they really need to invest in their business, invest in training and talent, invest in innovation – so I hope that we, as an industry, get our heads around that value proposition. I know it’s a big challenge, and it’s not easy, but we all need to do it. Then we can start adding value from a client perspective and from our own perspective.

Thank you everyone.

Jon Bailey chief executive ProCo
Ursula Daly programme director BPIF
Amy Elrington Sales and Marketing Coordinator Webmart and BPIF Apprentice Council
Charles Jarrold chief executive BPIF
Jennifer Miller account manager Encompass Print Solutions and BPIF Apprentice Council
Kelly O’Sullivan print management controller Sainsbury’s Argos


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