It’s the time for the white, middle-class digital industry to put its money where its mouth is on diversity

Rob Jackson is the founder of WYK, a digital marketing social enterprise focused on youth development. It works with the Prince’s Trust to open employment opportunities in digital, marketing and tech to young people from all backgrounds.

The middle of a global pandemic, with the economy in meltdown and most of us still shut in our houses, might seem like the worst possible time to launch a scheme to help young people into work. But having done exactly that, I’ve come to realise it is the best – or at least the most important – time to do it.

It’s the time for the mainly white, middle-class digital marketing and media industries to put their money where their Instagram black-out posts are and take some action.

We launched the first WYK Digital Marketing Skills programme six weeks ago. The first cohort graduated on Friday. We’ve helped this exceptional group of young people – eight out of the nine of them BAME and/or female – develop the skills, knowledge and mindset required to succeed in marketing.

Our trainees (“WYKers”, as we’ve come to call them) are talented and brilliant. But they face an unacceptable inequality of opportunity in the UK, for a range of socioeconomic reasons. I could pull out any number of statistics to prove this point, but those of us who work in media or digital marketing know it’s true.

I’m sure you’ve noticed some leading marketing institutions scrambling for a response to the Black Lives Matter protests that have been sweeping the globe. But while supportive blog posts or think-pieces in the industry press are better than silence, we need more than that. We need firms to take positive action to diversify the talent pool, level the playing field, and create change – at a speed and scale that will make a difference.

I conceived the idea of WYK with one of my best friends, Tom Humphreys, back in 2015. We suggested to a holding group that they set up a coffee stand in their foyer; young people would work there and learn to become baristas, but also go and gain work experience at various departments in the agency. It wasn’t picked up.

But in 2019, following four more years of austerity and widening inequality, we decided to go again. This time the project was picked up by the Prince’s Trust and funded to start in March. Initially, we focused on training our young people, from diverse and deprived backgrounds, in digital marketing and soft skills.

Unfortunately, Covid-19 got in the way, and our plan to teach them in person had to be shelved, but we were able to spin up an online version, thanks to a host of volunteers and contributors.

The WYKers have gained professionally recognised certifications in both Facebook and Google Ads, and have had exposure to a multitude of disciplines across the digital spectrum. But we had hoped to get them real, paid work in a digital marketing agency. Covid-19 got in the way of that too – agencies and businesses have had to shelve their plans, and now our original hiring partners have now only been able to offer mock interviews. 

We want to support this group – and all the ones to come – with the one thing that is second only to paid work: experience. Hands-on, practical experience that will move them forward on the employability scale; our goal for them is paid employment in full time, permanent work. That will be harder, with lockdown still in place and the industry and the world still trying to work out the new normal – but we think it’s possible, and realistic.

I managed to draw on my own contacts to find these WYKers the experience and training they needed. But we’re starting a new cohort now, with 30 more young, talented people coming through. And now we’re going to need your contacts, and your colleagues’. 

Whether you’re a small business, a freelancer or part of a network group, you can support our mission. Our industry’s problems with diversity and inclusion are well known, and likely to get worse as the economy shrinks – but you can help us make things better.

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