Baltic Apprenticeships in Darlington has a vital national role as a training provider. Mike Hughes talked to its new director of public affairs Joanna Wake

Joanna Wake’s life has always had a certain rhythm, from the Department of Education, through to her own RAW Digital and on to Baltic Apprenticeships, she has always built and championed the routes that enable people to progress.

Rhythm is also very apparent in her family life, where she can be seen at many gigs in the area and much further afield, often with her eldest son alongside her, enjoying music where I often can’t tell which is the title of the song and which is the name of the band.

She is engaging and passionate when talking about either, and seems to be relishing her new role as director of public affairs for Baltic apprenticeships, where she will be building pivotal relationships with politicians and stakeholders in the education and apprenticeship sector and creating and publishing research and reports that have the weight to change how things are done.

The most recent looked at the current apprenticeship landscape, highlighting a lack of incentives for SMEs and organisations hiring under 19s.

As she travelled down to London to present it, she said: “Our economy can only grow if businesses can grow, and skills have hindered business growth for too long, whilst the impact of apprenticeships on skills gaps is well documented. We must now unite and act to create opportunities for our young people who want to take the apprenticeship route.”

The Northern Echo: Joanna at Parliament with her report Joanna at Parliament with her report (Image: Joanna Wake)

Back on home ground, you can sense how ideal this role seems for her. Everything may have been leading up to this and she is relishing the opportunity and the impact she could have.

She told me: “My role is to manage our external relations with decision makers to try to influence change wherever possible, which involves a lot of travelling around, being in London, being at a lot of different events with businesses and the wider sector of other providers as well.

“We need to really ensure that apprenticeships are at the forefront of the skills agenda, that they’re getting the attention they deserve.”

Last year saw huge growth of the Baltic name – boosted by an ‘outstanding’ grade from Ofsted. Joanne and her colleagues also place a huge emphasis on data so they can make informed decisions about what to do with regards to skills and training and get the right percentage of young people coming through and achieving their qualification.

“The new report I took to London recently showed that the landscape out there is certainly a mix of challenges and achievement,” she continued.

“Recent years have seen a huge growth in terms of the levels of apprenticeships available, and you can go right through to degree level now. Also, the age range of people starting an apprenticeship is hugely broadened – that’s all great news and we’re here for all of it.

“However, there has been an unintended knock-on effect, whereby for the number of young people who are 16 to 18 year olds, starting an apprenticeship has declined by 41 per cent since 2017. That’s when the apprenticeship levy was introduced, which has been a good incentive in terms of having larger companies paying into the levy an amount which they then have to use on apprenticeships. But we’ve seen a decline in the number of SMEs using apprenticeships – down by 49 per cent since 2017.

“It’s so vital for our economy, for our skills agenda, because if we’ve got that huge increase in those kind of high level apprenticeships of level four upwards, but we haven’t got the level twos and threes, it’s moving away from an important entry route.

“One of the suggestions in the report is that I’d love to see Teesside be a trailblazer for a regional approach to apprenticeships, whereby you’re not putting all that weight on the school all of the time so you could have apprenticeship fairs say at the Riverside Stadium in September or maybe December or January.

“You could bring together lots of different apprenticeship providers and employers and it would be outside of school hours as well and you’d have the ability then for young people to be coming, for the parents to be coming, for people to be finding out about what the apprenticeship opportunities are, what they look like and to be part of that rallying call to businesses.”

The danger is that the levy, while trying to provide a structure and balance, has made the process more time-consuming, which will be enough to put off smaller firms with fewer resources to devote to it. That closes off a vital careers route, and cuts down the number of young people who could benefit.

Joanne tells me: “The statistics are really sad and when we’ve taken a real deep dive into it, we’ve seen that the problem really is multifaceted.

The Northern Echo: Baltic ApprenticeshipsBaltic Apprenticeships (Image: Baltic Apprenticeships)

“One train of thought is always that school careers advisors need to do more, that not enough young people know about apprenticeships – and that’s certainly been evident in the survey that we’ve carried out. But what we have also seen is that as the number of apprenticeship standards has grown hugely, we haven’t had that follow on of lining up the opportunities with the academic year, so it hasn’t been falling in line with the decision-making of youn.

 “So if you are in year 11 now or your last year of secondary school and were thinking about doing an apprenticeship, there’s very few opportunities available that are to start in September and although we think year-round recruitment should certainly remain, if businesses could pay a small amount of attention towards bringing in that younger generation and having a few opportunities to start in September that would be a huge step forward.

“As an example of where we are at now, software development is a very in-demand skillset in this country – it has been for a number of years and will continue to be – so we looked at the number of people that had applied for our apprenticeships for a level three and then the number of apprenticeships starts.

“What that showed us is that if you want to do a software development apprenticeship, you’ve got about a one or two per cent chance of landing one – meanwhile, we have about half of all businesses that need software development outsourcing that skillset overseas, to Poland and India.

“And that’s just one example of an industry and skillset where the hunger is absolutely there, the passion is there, a lot of people want to do this... but the opportunities aren’t matching up. So that gap is getting further and further apart in terms of the bigger picture and our competitive edge on the international stage, as well as our ability for inward investment.”

Her knowledge of the system is encyclopaedic, but it is backed by deep-rooted insight provided from her own time growing up, but also from what her sons are telling her about their own hopes and ambitions.

She was born in Stockton, but grew up in Whinney Banks in Middlesbrough – the latest in a generation of Teessiders. She harboured early thoughts of being an actress – at one stage taking four parts in a production of Bugsy Malone. She went to college after school, where she chose “a random selection of subjects that I thought would interest me”, but before the GCSE McDonalds beckoned and she became hooked on being a wage-earner.

The Northern Echo: Baltic ApprenticeshipsBaltic Apprenticeships (Image: Baltic Apprenticeships)

“I found I could do things very fast, really enjoyed that work, and soon found myself skipping college and taking on more shifts instead.

“It was evident that I wasn’t going to go to university – I just knew I couldn’t do it. I didn’t have the ability to see through some of the more deeper tasks with regards to essays and things like that. It was only two years ago that I was diagnosed with ADHD. I guess that’s taught me a lot about why things were the way they were when I was younger.

“So I didn’t finish college, but managed to get myself a job at a new DVLA call centre, which was for people to ring up and basically dob someone in for not having car tax.

“The application form was awful, but my mother made me do it and although there were 2,000 people applying for 12 jobs, I got one of them. It was a standard paying entry civil service job, but it was awesome and it was the skills from McDonald’s that got me the job – the customer service, the teamworking and the ability to role play.

“After that my first business idea was an e-commerce website for a wedding directory. Then I went on to RAW Digital which was digital marketing where I carried out a part-time Masters and then RAW evolved into teaching other people digital marketing digital skills and then was acquired by Baltic.

“I’ve always had a huge passion in me – the fire in my belly is there and I feel that if the dial could just be shifted slightly I can see what that change would be and what it would mean to tens of thousands, potentially hundreds of thousands, of young people to transform their futures, their income, their social mobility, their career ladder.

“I suppose it’s about making sure that all the dots are lined up and we are working together as a region and working with the schools as well because it’s impossible for one careers adviser to be able to know everything. But it’s making sure those opportunities are here because despite my role being national, Teesside is my home, my area and I absolutely love it. So if on our own doorstep we can see people succeed then a young person can know that sector exists and be able to see it, feel it and know how they can get there.

“It’s hugely exciting what’s happening in the area and I really hope that apprenticeships can play a huge part in it because it’s that transformation of people’s entire lives can happen from just starting an apprenticeship.

“I feel like I’ve always had it in me to really root for the underdog and I think you know my background certainly has an influence in that.”

The background and life she is building for her boys is so important for her and for them. If her work with apprenticeships could fill a book, then her home life is a vast blockbuster about love, music, family and futures. We said at one stage how amazing it was that so many different factors combine to make us the people we are – the formula is different for every one of us, but Joanne is blessed with how hers has come together.

With so much passion that she can hardly keep still as we talk, she told me about the Wake version of that formula.

“I think from a young age I really ‘felt’ music. My mum listened to quite a narrow range compared to what I’m into now, but she certainly would listen to albums on loop and she’d listen to some soul and disco and things like that and I just absolutely loved it and as I got that little bit older I started exploring a bit more myself.

“I had this Fiat Punto that I bought it with a £1,000 loan, and I remember it had cowprint seats. I loved that car so much, but I had my CDs scattered everywhere, of course, you know, typical ADHD and scratched to death a lot of them.

“I couldn’t wait to finish work to put on that album of what I was listening to at the time, which was in early 2000s – indie and early Libertines and The Coral, Kings of Lyon, and I was just buzzing off it, absolutely buzzing.

“I guess my life has now offered me the opportunity to be seeing more and doing more and particularly being based in Teesside – Stockton is just awash with live music all the time, and then I’ve been given the beautiful gift of having my teenage son being as mad about music as I am.

“We get to do such great experiences together. “It sometimes seems my entire social life is with him and then with my youngest son I’m doing complete completely other things because he’s only five. My oldest son Ramsey is about to turn 16 at the end of this month and time may run out where he wants to hang out with his mother so I’m just kind of squeezing every inch out of it.

“I got a piano delivered the other week, an impulse purchase it was it was from my neighbours. They were selling it and I thought I’ll have that for the kids – which meant five fellas bringing it across the road on four skateboards.

“I guess in my head, it was imagining this whimsical scene of children playing at the piano, all lovely. In reality, it’s been a bit more heavy duty.

“Ramsey picked up guitar a year and now he’s got four and he’s always playing them so basically it’s like the von Trapp family in here when all the instruments are going or there’s music playing and we have Harry Belafonte singing Jump in the Line. It’s a  song we all love and sometimes if that’s on the kids will just make their way to the kitchen and everyone’s dancing around the island and I just feel so, so fortunate that the house is filled with love and music.

“My little boy is a joy to be around and I feel lucky to be doing it again and I think if I didn’t have him I think, you know, I’d probably be really struggling to let go of the apron strings with Ramsey.

“He has Attention Deficit Disorder, probably thanks to me, and wants to do an apprenticeship in data. He’s good at maths but wouldn’t want to do accounting or anything like that but he knows that he doesn’t want to do university, he knows he wants to do an apprenticeship and he’s in his last year of school, so I’m getting that direct experience of it.

“When I was able to deliver this latest report initially to a round table in Parliament of some huge national organisations I was able to use him as an example and other people around the table were able to give examples as well so it certainly brought it to life.

“With my own diagnosis of ADHD the biggest thing that comes from it is this huge sense of forgiveness of yourself I think and understanding and you know any one time ADHD can just be a real torment in your life because you’ve always got things that you should do, or that you feel like you need to be doing, or things that you forgot.

“So it’s not that you’re forgetful, or not that you’re uncaring, it’s that you remember over and over again, but your mind moves quite fast. I see with my son that he’s immensely inquisitive, and thinks about ideas that other people perhaps wouldn’t and that’s the same with me.

“I can see the benefits and the pluses of it but inevitably there’s a lot of simple things that you keep forgetting about all the time or you keep losing and there’s a lot of self-sabotage involved in that and in the end with me it’s allowed me to just to be so much kinder to myself and that’s been transformational in my life.

“I’m not on medication, but I do a lot with regards to my food and I’ve placed a big focus on sleep and things like that, that kind of helps a bit, but obviously it will never go away.

“Sometimes I love it, like when we went to New York, which was a really big thing for both of us, and every day we got up and we looked on the map and decided which area to go to. We went to every single neighbourhood, did comedy, did music and ate in every type of place you could eat.

“But we didn’t have a single plan and I guess there’s that kind of benefit there where you can get to grips with something very fast or you can always find a solution to things. So we were able to enjoy that part when we were away.

“I think with my son the key thing was he had ways that I always thought were like me and when I had that lightbulb moment it was like an earthquake going on.

“I’ve just gone back to everything about my life, everything about the way that I am and it all just suddenly made sense. It was really overwhelming and really emotional.

“We got our diagnoses within about a week of each other and we got a cake with a Ferrari on top and it said ‘brain like a Ferrari’ because that’s what they sometimes say about ADHD.

“But it’s all a journey to do together, and all part of the recipe that make us.”