FEATURE25 November 2019

Learning the market research trade

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Features Impact UK Youth

It takes time to establish an apprenticeship but thanks to a team of trailblazers, the market research sector is edging ever closer to getting one off the ground. By Jane Bainbridge

Young people working office_Crop

In 2017, the government introduced the apprenticeship levy, to apply to all employers in England with an annual pay bill of more than £3m. The levy – calculated as 0.5% of this annual pay bill and collected through HM Revenue and Customs’ Pay As You Earn (PAYE) – aims to create 3m apprenticeships by 2020.

In response to concerns about the scheme’s complexity, and worries that not enough apprentices were being signed up, the then chancellor, Philip Hammond, announced some reforms to the levy last year.

The Market Research Society (MRS) first raised the idea of a market research apprentice scheme in 2012 – but, at that time, the reaction from the sector was somewhat muted. Part of the problem was an entrenched belief that market research was a graduate-level profession, so apprentices weren’t appropriate.

However, when the government brought in the apprenticeships levy, it changed things. The MRS went out to the market again in 2016 and by 2017 initial meetings started taking place.

Establishing an approved apprenticeship scheme isn’t easy. It requires standards to be developed, and they must be unique to the sector, not equivalent to any other sector schemes already set up. The process is strict and requires ‘trailblazers’ to get it up and running.

A trailblazer group is a minimum of 10 employers representing a range of activities and companies within the sector. Crucially it must be employer-led – so, as a professional body, the MRS can support but not lead.

In January 2019, a trailblazer group for the market research industry was formed led by Louise Maycock, head of talent at Ipsos Mori.

The group currently consists of 15 companies: Acuigen, ampersand research, BGL Group, Cello Health, Channel 4, Disney, Firefish, Flamingo, Hackney Council, House of Commons, Ipsos Mori, Maritz, Shift-Learning, Transport for West Midlands and Watermelon.

The idea appealed to Ipsos Mori because it had been looking at expanding its intake. Maycock says: “We’ve done a lot of work to bring in a more diverse mixture of people. We had a very traditional model of being a graduate entry employer, needing a 2:1, 300 UCAS points. Now we have extended our internship offer and our pipelines into our graduate programme – taking out the UCAS points and 2:1 requirement in favour of cognitive-based assessments. So, there is massive potential to get a more diverse mix into the funnel in the first place.”

So what has Ipsos Mori’s experience of taking on apprentices been like so far? “We’re in the middle of it,” she says. “There have been some bumps along the road; it’s been a mixed bag. We’ve had some brilliant people – two or three stars we hope to keep. We are getting better at it.

“We underestimated at the beginning the amount of support that someone at 18 needs – even the very basic, office life stuff. There’s a big difference between an 18-year-old and a 22-year-old.”

The trailblazer group is now working with its allocated relationship manager from the Institute of Apprenticeships. The first stage involves creating a proposal of the occupational profile.

Maycock says the biggest difficulties are: having a role that fits the apprenticeship requirement (it probably aligns best with research assistant) and gaining agreement from everyone in a timely and effective fashion. “I’m confident we’ll get to a consensus. We’ve had healthy debate so far – no big conflicts. We may come from different directions but there’s a passion to make it work. It’ll take some to-ing and fro-ing, but there is a positive feeling”.

Victoria Hardy, vice-president and head of research, EMEA, Disney, says she was similarly keen to get involved to challenge herself to think about how to build diverse teams. “I was thinking about how we can break out of a conveyor belt of graduates. They do a great job but bring only one angle to the profession. It prompted me to think how do we get that diversity of thought that’s needed in any research establishment?”

Disney has similarly been dipping its toes in the water with apprentices in other disciplines. “In my team, we took on our first data analyst apprentice at the beginning of the year. I approached it as a bit of a trial for us but it’s a roaring success so far. A lot boils down to the individual,” says Hardy.

She points out why it’s so important to have that broad spread of companies – in terms of client sectors and size of organisation – represented in the trailblazer group.

“Even in our initial meeting we were discussing how to approach this to consider both agency-side and client-side angles and the different types of research happening there. It forced us to look at the core commonalities.” Jessica Barclay, Flamingo’s head of people, culture and inclusion, believes getting agreement across all the organisations involved is probably the biggest hurdle to overcome.

“For some of us, we are keen to attract people into the industry who might not have ordinarily had the opportunity to get into it or even know about it. For others, the aim is to build a qualification that enables them to promote their existing staff, and it is our job to build an apprenticeship that does both,” she says.

The starting age needs to be set but is most likely to be 18. How long it will take to be up and running remains to be seen, but it seems likely it will take between 18 months and two years. Once the occupational profile has been agreed, training providers must then be found. Companies can offer this but will need to be Ofsted inspected if they run the classroom training.

There is a clear need for this apprenticeship. Our industry must be more inclusive and finding a route into the profession that is open to a more diverse group of people is essential.