Marketing ‘FE’s best-kept secret’ — have we got the seven Ps right on traineeships?

Why have traineeships had such a poor take-up, asks Ruth Sparkes.

Traineeships were supposed to be ‘the next big thing’ for FE.

You may be forgiven for thinking that traineeships were a government knee-jerk reaction to our shocking youth unemployment figures.

While it may well be the case that 59 per cent of young people get five good GCSEs with English and maths, and these teens can go on to comfortably complete A-levels, BTecs and apprenticeships, what’s left for the 41 per cent of young people who don’t make the grades?

Pendennis, a luxury yacht builder in Falmouth, takes on a dozen apprentices every year.

This year, around 180 young people applied for an apprenticeship with the firm. This means, broadly, that the 168 applicants who were rejected didn’t have the personal skills or the qualifications the company was looking for.

We often hear similar stories surrounding the big national companies such as Rolls Royce and BT, but believe me, this sorry tale is replicated at a company near you.

Employers have been complaining that young people don’t have the necessary skills to start an apprenticeship. Traineeships are supposed to bridge that gap, and I’m sure they do. However, take-up is so poor and it’s tricky to find a learner to ask them about it.

So, if traineeships are a good thing, and there’s a real need for them, why is take-up so embarrassingly poor? We need to ask whether we’ve got the seven Ps right.

First, the product. There is no point in developing a product or service that no one wants.

We have already established the great need for traineeships, so by and large this part of the mix is okay.

Second, place. The product must be available in the right place, at the right time.

FE, like other education sectors, has its own cycle, and traineeships were not presented to the sector at the right time. As colleges and higher education providers know, any new course that misses the advice and guidance cycle misses out.

Third, promotion. Promotion is the way an organisation communicates what a product does and what it can offer its ‘customers’.

Who knows about traineeships? Government, the FE sector and West Ham’s Karren Brady know all about traineeships.

FE, like other education sectors, has its own cycle, and traineeships were not presented to the sector at the right time

What about headteachers, careers teachers, advice and guidance people, parents and most importantly, the prospective trainee? These very important stakeholders know nothing of traineeships. And they aren’t alone. By and large, employers don’t know about them either. Promotion of traineeships has been low key to say the least.

Fourth and fifth, process and people. The process of giving a service, and the behaviour of those who deliver are crucial to customer satisfaction.

And now in an effort to increase take-up, grade three providers who ‘require improvement’, according to Ofsted) will now be able to deliver traineeships as prime contractors (where they have been downgraded in-year).

On one hand, this is a good thing. Grade one and two colleges are not equally spread out geographically, so before this edict, a potential ‘trainee’ in somewhere like Bristol might have been unable to secure a traineeship simply because of a lack of a quality provider.

But on the other hand, the government was, initially, at pains to make sure that traineeships weren’t seen as sub-standard and so restricted their delivery to only good and outstanding providers, along with grade three subcontractors.

Traineeships are already below apprenticeships in the hierarchy of qualifications, and I believe the government was trying to ensure that employers and learners viewed these as desirable qualifications. If you restrict the availability of a product, you serve to make it exclusive.

Sixth, physical evidence. Training is a service, and a service can’t be experienced before it’s delivered. New courses are always a bit of an unknown quantity, there’s no track record. What is important here, especially for traineeships are institutions’ reputation with employers.

And finally, price. It is the only element of the marketing mix that generates revenue — everything else represents a cost.

Funding for traineeships has been sketchy and confusing, and a few providers have been put off by this. Never forget other products are available.

Traineeships need more time and proper, planned attention to really take hold, until then, they’ll sadly continue to be FE’s best-kept secret.

Ruth Sparkes, managing director of marketing and education, media and PR agency EMPRA

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