New apprenticeship scheme will plot AV's next generation

The AV world lacks formal qualifications, but Middlesbrough College in the UK, home to the world’s first AV degree is now offering a new apprenticeship programme too. Paul Milligan speaks to Jack Laidlaw

The variety in the AV world makes it an attractive industry to work in. One day you will be installing a videowall, the next rolling out a global video conferencing platform, the next designing a UI for a control system.

However, this variety means AV engineers have to attain a huge amount of different skills in order to successfully design, install and service AV equipment. This variety has hindered the creation of a single AV qualification, as there are in so many other industries. This is not a new problem, the lack of a single AV qualification has been discussed at length within the industry for decades, but the discussion always stalls at who is ultimately responsible for creating it. Who has got the time and money to do it?

Until now the answer has been no one. One man on a mission to change all that is Jack Laidlaw, programme leader of Middlesbrough College in the North-East of England. Not content with setting up what seems to be the only AV degree in the world (we certainly can’t find evidence of another one) two years ago, Laidlaw is now in the process of setting up an AV apprenticeship scheme, in coordination with over 30 AV firms, to create a meaningful pathway for young people to enter the AV industry. No one can say it’s not overdue.

The start of this process began in 2016 when he began writing what has become a BSc (Hons) in Audio Visual Technology. Since no one else had previously done it, what was Laidlaw’s original inspiration to do so? “Necessity,” he says. “We’re looking for opportunities to expand what the college delivers and through having conversations with people who run AV companies, they were always telling me we can’t find enough staff. I talked to our staff about it and we decided we could deliver it, we do music technology, we do media production, we do computer programming, so we used those as our basis, added a lot of extra elements and wrote an AV degree.”In 2021 the first class of AV Technology will graduate,


“They’ll be the only people in the world with an audio visual technology degree,” says Laidlaw proudly. Like anything new it has taken time for the AV degree to build momentum, and despite industry excitement at the move, initial numbers of degree students have been small. Something Laidlaw puts down in part to the AV industry’s own lack of self-promotion, especially to young people; “Young people into gaming all have their favourite games design company, or people into films will have their favourite production companies or directors. There’s nothing really like that in AV. I think more effort needs to be made it in terms of promoting the work that AV technicians do, as well as people that design the content. If you rig up an amazing, immersive VR experience in a museum, at any point do any of the visitors find out who you are and how you did it? No, you don’t. We need to think about that.”

Laidlaw’s point about self-promotion here is something that has been echoed by this magazine for years too. Not one to sit back, Laidlaw has now moved on to his latest project, to create another training programme, this time it’s an AV apprenticeship. The idea for this was born out of the college’s experiences with the degree scheme, and again, out of necessity in the marketplace says Laidlaw. “Over time it’s become clear that an apprenticeship would be more suitable because companies want staff now, they don’t want them in three years.”Laidlaw outlines the creation process for the apprenticeship programme: “We’re working with about 30 AV companies to write the standard (for an AV apprenticeship) which currently is non-existent. Essentially what we’ll do as a training institution, once that apprenticeship standard exists, is to deliver an online distance learning version of our AV degree to tie in with the apprenticeship.”

The course will be primarily online, but Laidlaw is also working with some London-based institutions who will be providing access to AV facilities so that apprentices can be taught in person in a real AV environment when it’s needed. “If you’re an AV employer and you want to take on an apprentice, you have to put them on a certain apprenticeship standard and that standard would be the new AV apprenticeship. But because they’re not just a normal employee, they’re an apprentice, they have to complete off-the-job training, which they do for roughly 20% of their time. And that’s where the training provider comes in, and that’s where Middlesbrough College comes in.

”The 20% can be done atany time during the two-year apprenticeship adds Laidlaw, “It’s not a case of ‘one day every week’ as some might assume, there’s flexibility built into the system for employers and apprentices, the nature of a hybrid online/in person delivery model is perfect for this.”As Laidlaw points out, not only is an apprenticeship a huge benefit to AV firms, who get manpower straight away, but the young person benefits too. “An apprenticeship is more attractive to a prospective student than a normal degree because as an apprentice you don’t pay course fees, so you don’t get saddled with student debt, and you actually get paid because you’re an employee of the company.

”So just how will the scheme work in practice? “Although I’m leading the development of this, the content doesn’t come from me, it has to come directly from the employers,” says Laidlaw. To do this he is working alongside Graeme Massey from AV recruitment firm Jacobs Massey, who is the chairman of the group tasked with creating the standard to make sure the apprenticeship is relevant to the workplace. The key to this scheme’s success is getting the AV industry on-board, if no companies take on apprentices the programme will die. Getting the involvement of the industry is crucial but comes with its own set of issues too. “Officially my role is the facilitator of the development of this standard, the hard part of that is pulling together a group of 30 companies, all with their own needs and wants and opinions, which are all valuable, and turning that into one standard is quite tricky,” adds Laidlaw. The 30 AV companies involved include a mix of end users, integrators and manufacturers.

“We made it very clear early on what we’re trying to do is to develop an entry to the sector, we are not trying to develop AV programming experts, or loudspeaker designers, what we’re trying to develop is a training programme which will cover as broad a base as possible, so that once you’re finished you’re qualified to go on and then specialise in AV programming or loudspeaker design or whatever you want. The idea is that every apprentice that qualifies has covered enough, and on a broad basis, to be an AV technician for Bloomberg or Google etc.” Whenever the discussion of creating an AV qualification takes place, inevitably the talk moves to the role and responsibility of the industry’s only trade association (AVIXA). Laidlaw was keen to say how supportive AVIXA has been in getting to this point. “I had conversations with AVIXA about this very early on, they’ve always been supportive. When you first talk to the Institute for Apprenticeships to get it off the ground they’ll ask if you’ve got a professional industry body that’s going to you rubber stamp this, and AVIXA said yes straight away.

”Sadly because of the way the apprenticeship framework works, the AV apprenticeship is only available in England for now, but Laidlaw hopes his work will inspire other countries’ education systems to do the same. The need for programmes like Laidlaw’s is obvious right across EMEA. It could be that Laidlaw’s role here is to lay the path for a whole host of global AV training programmes to follow. What are his hopes for the apprentices his scheme will help provide? “We hope we can provide a polymath, someone who can do a bit of everything, is useful in all different types of industries and particularly in the AV industry, because it draws from so many different areas.” In an industry crying out for young talent, people like Laidlaw and programmes like this one are vital if AV is to continue to gro

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