Since 2008, at the height of the UK recession, over 3.7 million people have been made redundant, leaving administration roles stretched to breaking point. Secretarial roles were hardest hit and as head counts were slashed, the day-to-day administrative workload didn’t decrease.

A problem soon arose as to how companies could get essential administrative support when budgets for full-time secretarial staff were frozen in recession-hit Britain. Could the solution lie in one of the successful national Apprenticeship Schemes?

An Apprenticeship Scheme is there to encourage new young talent into your industry or business sector that otherwise would never have been given the chance. Apprentices, between the ages of 19-24, join your company for one year, where they complete an NVQ in Business Administration while you train, mentor and support their development on a day-to-day basis. In return, the apprentice provides you with dedicated business admin support – this could be a basic secretarial role, or could be adjusted to suit the wider administration needs of your department or company.

An external training company (such as Straight A Training) works in conjunction with your own HR team to source the apprentice candidates and to supply the formal NVQ qualification. The recruitment process is rigorous: candidates send in their applications and are filtered down to an appropriate number. Those candidates then come in for workshop days where they can be studied and observed while completing tasks (such as planning an event in teams so you can assess their ingenuity, prioritization and communication skills). At this workshop stage, the candidates declare a preference for which department in your company they’d like to work in. From that you, as their manager/mentor, can pick as many interested candidates to attend a formal job interview so you can choose the best apprentice for your team.

One important factor to note is that the Apprenticeship Scheme was devised to give young people with no previous business or admin experience the opportunity to kick-start their career, so it is likely that your apprentice has never been in an office before. The skills and knowledge that you, as an experienced PA/Secretary, take for granted will need to be broken down, explained and taught from scratch: how to answer the phone, how to behave in an office, the written language of business and how to meet and speak to people in an appropriate manner.

Once you have taught your apprentice the basics, you can then quickly move on to consolidate them into their new administrative role. It is important to provide the apprentice with a detailed job spec at the start of their year, so that they understand clearly what their core roles are and what they can hope to achieve as the year progresses and as their skills improve.

Our apprentice, in ITV’s Legal & Business Affairs Department, has her core day-to-day role clearly set out: she works as a contracts administrator alongside other admin tasks such as distributing the post, stationery ordering, archiving and greeting guests. She is always available to assist anyone in our department with any ad-hoc administrative requirements.

The apprentice’s NVQ work sits in the background of their day-to-day role, some apprentices do their NVQ course work in their own time, or you can allocate one morning a week for them to do it while they are at work. You also need to make sure you give them the flexibility to attend any NVQ training days and courses during the year.

There are of course costs involved. You, as the host company, pay towards the apprentice’s training costs and the cost of their monthly travel card. The other half of the costs comes from the Government’s Skills Funding Agency, who pay the NVQ training company (ie Straight A Training).

With youth unemployment at a staggering 993,000 and 21% in the first quarter of 2013, there has never been a greater time to get involved in giving young people a start in life. Last year ITV had 674 applications from young people trying to get a place on their Apprentice Scheme and the company has been able to host 62 apprentices within ITV since the scheme started in 2010. 89% of them go on to secure further opportunities (employment, higher education or further training) and 76% of those were offered full-time positions within ITV. However, you have to be clear with your apprentice from the outset that there are no guarantees that there will be a job offer at the end of the year, even if their performance has been outstanding.

The greatest positive aspect of the Apprenticeship Scheme is, as a PA/Secretary, that you get another pair of hands to give you the essential additional administrative support that you need. Personally, I have also been surprised about what I can learn from my apprentice; by going back to basics and teaching someone the core skills that you rely on, made me freshen up and re-evaluate those skills which I had learnt 15 years ago. It was fascinating to revisit skills that are often taken for granted and to learn how they can be challenged and improved through the eyes of someone at the start of their secretarial career.

There are of course challenges. You have to commit a great deal of time especially during the first few weeks when you need to teach your apprentice the basics of their role. There are always a number of candidates who drop out of the scheme or don’t complete the year. This can be for a number of reasons; that they aren’t suited to the team that they are working in, they don’t appreciate the tough reality of the working world or that their manager/mentor doesn’t engage and fulfill their training requirements. However, the completion rate for the Apprentice Scheme at ITV is 85%, above the national completion average of 75%.

If you think that an Apprentice Scheme could work in your company then you should speak to your HR team in the first instance to see what opportunities may already be in place. Do your research well: start with the Government’s Skills Funding Agency and from there you can look into the various apprentice training companies and what they can offer. Propose the idea of the scheme to your boss with the following key set of documents:

1 Draw up a detailed business proposal:
•Costs for an apprentice vs costs of a full-salaried administrator
•Areas of support that you/your team need and how an
apprentice can fulfill them.
•Benefits to your company: what will they/your team get out of it?

2 Create a detailed job specification:
•Detail all core-job roles/tasks/expectations/skills required
•Detail any additional work they can aspire to take on

3 Create a year-long learning & development plan:
•First three months: learn basics and start to consolidate role
•Second three months: consolidate day-to-day role
•Final six months: progression/development/expansion of role

Being able to encourage, mentor and educate the next generation of PAs, Secretaries and Administrators gives you a truly worthwhile sense of achievement. The most significant result is that you are giving a young person an opportunity and a chance to start their career with an unrivaled set of skills, office experience and a qualification. An Apprentice Scheme is a great opportunity and a possible solution for negotiating around the administrative difficulties of today’s recession-hit Britain, where everyone can truly benefit. For America, the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration (www.doleta.gov) provides a list of contacts to help you locate apprenticeship opportunities near you, and in Australia, check out www.australianapprenticeships.gov.au.

Useful links
The Skills Funding Agency: www.skillsfundingagency.bis.gov.uk
Straight A Training: www.straighta.co.uk

Case study: Grace Chillingworth – Apprentice in ITV’s Legal & Business Affairs Team 2012/13
I met Grace Chillingworth at the workshop stage of the 2012-13 recruitment process for the ITV Apprentice Scheme. She drew my attention because out of the 100+ candidates I saw over two days, Grace was the only person to take the initiate to seek me out in the room and say that she really wanted to learn how to be a PA.

Grace subsequently joined our Legal & Business Affairs team in September 2012 for her one-year apprenticeship. She learned the basics of her new admin role with extraordinary speed and dexterity so we could move on quickly to consolidate her into a contracts administrator role within our busy team.

Grace, 19, had no previous business or admin experience and came to us from a retail role at Boots. Working and training someone who is enthusiastic, excited to learn and happy to take on all aspects of admin work has been crucial for our team and especially for me as her manager/mentor.

We’ve created for Grace a unique administrative role: she gets to hone her basic admin skills and has the opportunity to constantly learn new ones (such as minute taking and agenda writing) all around her core contracts administrator role. This has allowed her to feel that she can “own” her role and gives her the scope to always keep improving and developing.

After just a few weeks Grace became an appreciated, indispensable and valued member of our team. Most importantly she will complete her time with ITV with a formal NVQ qualification and an essential year of unparalleled experience under her belt.

As Grace explains:
“The last year has been very successful. I have been mentored by Alison and a wonderful team who have helped me to learn and flourish within my role. Being able to work in such an environment has given me invaluable work experience. I will be forever grateful for the opportunity and feel very privileged to be part of the Apprenticeship Scheme within ITV.”

For me as a mentor, I feel a great sense of satisfaction that I can pass on my 15 years of experience, skills and knowledge to someone just starting their career as one of the next generation of PA/Secretaries.

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Alison Boler has been the Executive Assistant to three Heads of Legal & Business Affairs at ITV since 2007, providing extensive PA support as well as working on the legal and contract areas of Drama, Factual, Sport and Acquisitions across all of ITV's ... (Read More)

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