There aren’t many obvious synergies between steel processing and local government communications.
So, I understood the murmur of intrigue among senior management when we appointed Tony, a former steel processing worker with no office experience, as our communications apprentice. Ten months on, the communications team is doing more, doing it smarter and he’s the council’s apprentice of the year.
Like most local authorities, Southend-on-Sea BC has grappled with the daunting challenge of improving services with depleting funds. Our communications team was not immune from the inevitable efficiencies and restructures. Alongside that, we had to factor in the growing demand to engage with customers on social media.
Appointing an apprentice was an important part of our solution. It supported our aim to help young people into meaningful employment, provided extra resource and allowed us to plan succession. Further, other areas of our organisation have done so to great success, with 52 apprentices entering the organisation in two years and most finding meaningful employment either within or outside the organisation afterwards.
Nonetheless, I feared we might spend more time showing an apprentice how to do the work than it would take to do it ourselves.
That’s where effective recruitment comes in. You can’t demand a CV replete with qualifications and experience, so you look for potential and drive as well. Before advertising, we identified tasks that needed completing and the skills needed to fulfil them.
Through CV-checking and assignments, we checked computer literacy, social media familiarity and writing skills. Through interview performance, we tested verbal communication, diplomacy (vital when dealing with councillors and stakeholders), workload management and ambition.
Tony swiftly proved our concerns unfounded. During his tenure, Tony has devised and implemented a social media campaign to engage people in the most significant art installation to visit our town in many years. He has applied his IT skills to develop a media evaluation system, which we now use to decide where to dedicate resource and effort. He is now developing his first communications strategy to support an important regeneration project.
I, too, have learned along the way. I have learned to manage better, to coach and to trust. Mentoring has made me challenge the way we do things. Most profoundly, I have learned never to underestimate what someone is capable of.
Apprenticeships, however, are changing. The introduction of the apprenticeship levy means an extra cost to large employers like councils. It aims to help improve the quality and quantity of apprenticeships. Indeed, the government’s stated aim is that employers committed to developing their employees will be able to get back more than they put in by training increased numbers of new-start apprentices. For teams like communications, this potentially means more training geared towards specific skillsets. For future apprentices, this means more sharply honed CVs that better equip them for specialist careers.
Michael Sargood, communications & media relations advisor, Southend-on-Sea BC
The apprentice’s perspective
Deciding what you want to do for the rest of your life is one of the most daunting experiences teenagers face. Some have a clear idea of what they want for their future, but for some, it can seem like a toss-up between heading off to university (and debt) or taking on menial jobs to pay the bills. I had worked as a window-fitter, a grill chef and a crane operative for a steel processor. I got by but yearned for a job that would play to my creative strengths.
Taking up an apprenticeship at the council wasn’t something I had initially considered. But after some deep thought, I knew it would be a good move in the long run. I’ll be honest; dropping down to an apprentice wage was tough. But I just knew that, if I stuck at it, the pros would outweigh the cons tenfold.
Being a 1990s baby, I have grown up with social media all around me, so my understanding of what people like to see and what they engage with online was already well-formed. Having the opportunity to develop these skills in the workplace was the sort of opportunity I had been yearning for: a role that allowed me to study, work and earn all at once.
After 10 months in my role, I haven’t looked back. Having the opportunity to gain vital experience in local government has set me on course for a future career in communications, and I look forward to the opportunities on my newly expanded horizon.
Tony Smyth, communications apprentice, Southend-on-Sea BC