Euan Blair: apprenticeships can change the world
The co-founder of talent accelerator WhiteHat says apprenticeships can shape leaders and increase social mobilityGabrielle Lane
I meet Euan Blair at the Marylebone offices of WhiteHat, the apprenticeship talent accelerator that he co-founded with former hired.com head of sales, Sophie Adelman.
Blair is in a light blue company sweatshirt, full of energy and between meetings. The team are brainstorming at picnic tables – tech start-up style. Beyond them, a group of young people has gathered to discuss what WhiteHat can do for them. And, that, as Blair will tell me light-heartedly over coffee, is: “change the world”.
The company was started in 2016 to match non-graduate talent with apprenticeship opportunities at the UK bases of firms such as Google, BP and Expedia. “WhiteHat is a tech start-up on a mission to support a diverse group of future leaders and build an outstanding alternative to university; we think that the way you do that is through high-quality apprenticeships,” Blair asserts.
It was, notably, his father (former Prime Minister Tony Blair) who championed university as an educational option for all. But Euan is among those who believe the time has come to look at alternatives to upskill the next generation of business leaders. When working for social enterprise Sarina Russo Job Access, he saw first-hand that a university degree was not a guaranteed passport to career success for those he tried to place with employers. Today he says: “When everyone had a degree, the value accrued to the people with those degrees decreased, so that was a big challenge.”
Conversely, he knew non-graduates desperately needed access to education and employment resources that others took for granted. He was passionate about it.
THE APPRENTICESHIP LEVY
Blair’s social ambitions coincided with educational reform. In April 2017, the current government introduced the Apprenticeship Levy and changed the way apprenticeships were funded: those firms with total salaries of more than £3m per year have since been required to contribute 0.5% of their payroll cost towards the professional development of existing and new employees. This figure is then supplemented and employers given freedom to allocate the monies. Blair explains: “We now have a great opportunity to democratise access to careers.”
It’s no secret that there have been some teething problems with the Apprenticeship Levy’s implementation. In June 2018, CMI chief executive Ann Francke joined forces with Dr Adam Marshall the British Chambers of Commerce to call for changes to how the funds are accessed and used. The business leaders are among the nine in ten managers who believe apprenticeships hold to key to nurturing employees and boosting UK business performance.
Read more: The 10-step plan for apprenticeship reform
For his part, Blair welcomes the increased debate on the topic. “In spite of the negative publicity – and there’s been positive publicity too – I can’t think of a greater push factor for companies to discuss apprenticeships, diversity and entry-level talent in the boardroom,” he says.
He expects the uptake of apprenticeships to increase as the first Levy funds expire in April 2019. He adds that a delay is expected when companies must make their own decisions about how to use training funds. ”Employers are rightly going to ask ‘if we’re spending our own money on [apprenticeships], are they of a high-quality standard’? They are currently ending old schemes and thinking about what comes next. They need high-quality providers that can give them what they need.”
WhiteHat works with employers to devise innovative and exciting training programmes. It phases in the introduction of apprenticeships into “low-risk” areas of a business and it hosts roundtables with line managers about what an apprenticeship should involve.
THE BEST APPRENTICESHIPS
There are big success stories. The communications agency Portland started by taking on apprentices into functional roles within its IT, accounting and administrative teams. It worked. Apprenticeships within client-facing roles followed – those young people that joined made a crucial business impact. “One apprentice was working on a campaign for an international airport within three months. It was launched and seen by millions and her story was featured in The Times’ Elite Apprenticeship Guide,” says Blair proudly.
SOCIAL MOBILITY THROUGH APPRENTICESHIPS
Even more remarkable is the often-forgotten personal impact of apprenticeships that organisations like WhiteHat – and the employers that they work with – are having. The Portland apprentice was just 18. “She never thought she could be working somewhere like that,” admits Blair.
One of WhiteHat’s key objectives is to prepare apprentices from all backgrounds for the world of work. It offers a programme of interview training, mentoring, CV preparation and skills workshops run by the likes of (psychological consultancy) MindGym. One recent partner was Google Garage: a day of group activities instilled a room of 30 young people with the confidence to talk openly about their achievements, so that employers could spot and value their next future leaders.
“We’ve had a lot of young people who coach younger siblings through their maths GCSEs – that’s an incredible skill. Equally, a lot of the young people we’ve worked with have been living on their own from the age of 16. They’ve all gained a unique outlook and a view of the world, and that’s something that should be shared,” says Blair.
Apprenticeships are empowering social mobility. Sixty-five per cent of Whitehat apprentices are from BAME backgrounds. Half have claimed free school meals. These apprentices are now the bright lights at the organisations they see on the news. Organisations such as Warner Brothers, Facebook and UKTV – and organisations that need them.
More information and apprenticeship opportunities can be found at whitehat.org.uk.