Julie Hawker, Chief Executive, Cosmic, and Board member of the Exeter & Heart of Devon Employment & Skills Board writes –
We’re all very aware that most young people now in their teenage years come with a skill, experience and aptitude for IT and digital technologies ‘built in’. These millennials (born since 2000) have grown up in a world where digital has played a part in every stage of their lives so far – entertainment, healthcare, education, social interaction, communications and more.
At the very same time then consider how many businesses locally are desperately in need of new digital skills and the talent to harness its potential within the business. In fact, when asked most SMEs don’t yet know what digital technologies can offer to improve their businesses – they simply do not have the time, expertise and basic knowledge to start this type of review.
And then, there’s the dilemma which older teenagers are now facing: to go to university in order to develop their knowledge, skills and career opportunities (whilst at the same time racking up student debt of course), or have the courage to step straight into employment or work placement. Or, of course, get the best of both-worlds and find a great apprenticeship!
And so it was against this backdrop that Cosmic set out to develop our own digital apprenticeship programme – harnessing the potential which young people can offer for the growth of our business and partner businesses too. Our first step was to recruit the right individuals, and ideally to get the local schools working with us to provide the links to the recruitment process. Hugely disappointing reactions from these schools – unwilling to promote apprenticeships to students, too busy to share our flyers, or just not keen to interrupt other ‘priority’ school activities. And further disappointment in the balance of applicants when we finally did get enough response – why aren’t more girls interested in IT career paths at the moment?
Once the recruitment was progressing, and during interviews, the inspiration and motivation levels for the project increased significantly, and we appointed six young guys with huge potential and commitment. During their 12 month programme we enjoyed watching them grow and develop new skills, become great team players, and more importantly take on income-generating roles in our business. We also provided them with major opportunities for work experience in partner organisations – Mole Valley Farmers, Yarlington Housing, Eloquent Technologies. And so the benefits to their development were very valuable.
And at the end of September 2014 Cosmic were able to offer three full-time, permanent roles on our staff – Jack, Alex, Jamie (one of whom already secured employment through the pilot project) are all now a part of the team and further developing their learning, skills and playing a part in business development too. Others who left us at this point have been supported to gain work in other businesses – web development and tech support. And so we look back at the programme with a great deal of pride and also a clear understanding about the value which this project gave us in return. For example –
- Cosmic has now implemented a Living Wage policy – ensuring that the pathway from apprenticeship (lower paid) to permanent position also comes with a significant increase in wage levels to recognise the contribution made to the business
- Travel costs to-and-from work are increasingly becoming a barrier for younger employees who seek to gain great jobs but at distance from home. Not just the cost of fuel if they are drivers, but the cost of insurance is massive! And then for those relying on public transport both the time it takes to journey across rural south west, and the costs involved are off-putting. (and so we put in place an additional travel subsidy based on the miles from home)
- Harnessing young, enthusiastic talent in our business effectively is a challenge – we need structure, planning, quality management and customer focus. They need autonomy (freedom to choose), motivation, incentives, peer-support and (they need but may not want!) understanding how it fits in business – i.e. commercial awareness.
- Customer service skills are not taught in our education system – and yet they are fundamental to every business! We invested a lot time with apprentices so that they learned and developed great customer service skills. Emails, phone calls, meetings, presentations all provide people with a link to our business and we must get that right every time.
Last month the House of Lords published a report about the significant need for digital skills to be embraced by British businesses – “Make or Break”
The report outlines numerous issues facing businesses and the need for digital skills, and plenty of recommendations for the incoming government in May to focus on –
“Including a digital element in all apprenticeship schemes, as well as offering more digital apprenticeships for specific technology occupations and sectors (taking into account the predicted changes to the labour market), could improve general digital skills”
But more locally, even the business community doesn’t recognise the major challenges ahead and we all need to inform and educate our colleagues and associates more fully. Digital skills will be needed by every business in the years ahead. There isn’t a ‘digital sector’ which will be the only employer of young talent, and we need to have schools, colleges, employers and careers support which understand this context for apprenticeships. And digital businesses and agencies, like Cosmic, are keen to sit at the heart of future developments and to support other employers.