We benefit from a fantastic core of solid talent with excellent retention, but finding good ICT staff to replace leavers was increasingly fraught; half the problem was connecting with those potentially interested and the other half avoiding the pretenders, and the IT skills gap doesn’t help either.
I usually try to avoid my children’s groans by not starting a line with “when I was a lad”, but here goes anyway. When I was a lad… Thursday night was job night in the local rag, with the jobs section running for pages. It was the same across the country, different paper, a different day perhaps, but the same game and anyone who was anyone, whether prospecting or seeking, was playing. People got multiple paper cuts posting all those application forms.
Fast forward (a few years!), with the dailies having all but gone the way of the dinosaurs, a special commendation for anyone who spots someone actually reading one. No wonder we often see youths trudging around public spaces stuffing leaflets in the hands of reluctant shoppers and commuters, exhorting the latest ‘buy one, get 20 free’ offer for whatever. So now, if you have a need to put your message in someone’s face it’s either Facebook or this! One’s the challenge of competing for attention against a million tales of what everyone had for supper, the other against everyone rushing home for supper.
We tried running our job adverts on Facebook and on our jobs portal, but both attracted scant attention. We even bought a contact database, though the money would have been better spent on the horses!
All this disappointment drove us back to the supposed safe haven of recruitment agencies but, like dating agencies, offering merely hot introductions, not the promise of a marriage made in heaven, even though their fees could fund several honeymoons.
We have long skills-tested candidates, always for programmers, but we extended this as we came to distrust often exaggerated anecdotes of accomplishment. For our infrastructure roles, this wasn’t dissimilar to an instalment of BBC Watchdog where a boiler is intentionally nobbled in order to test the mettle of a service engineer while the assessment panel observes – although we didn’t conceal ourselves in an adjoining room, observing through a hidden camera. However, this narrows the field even more as many candidates won’t play this sort of game.
So, to the point of this tale. Many moons ago I was introduced to the notion of ‘management insanity’; the bull-headed insistence that a poor situation will naturally come good through persisting with the same tactics. I was asked to imagine the manager of a football team trapped in the doldrums but saying to himself “next season we’re going to have that breakthrough” while playing the same squad with the same game plan. The point was if you want change then you have to change.
We have fundamentally changed our tactics and literally gone back to school, with an apprenticeship take-on programme for ICT.
It’s a completely different game but also the same one. We still have to find our hot contacts; we have the annual godsend of the Telford Apprenticeship Show, a day out for imminent A-Level leavers, where the Trust takes a regular stand, which we have taken the fullest advantage of. We have visited the local Thomas Telford School, meeting students whose interest was piqued by a poster that their careers advisor had agreed to put on the sixth-form notice board. One of these students became our first development apprentice.
Bringing the lessons learnt from the past very much to the fore, we make a proper meal out of ensuring we pick the most deserving contenders. We start with novelty challenges at the Apprenticeship Show, such as ‘see if you can fix the PC’ and ‘can you can find the bug’ (the latter shamelessly borrowed from ‘I’m a Celebrity…’ even down to the option to consume some desiccated locusts).
Those showing an aptitude and scoring highly are then encouraged to apply for ‘boot camp’, a three-day event to which the best eight will be invited, taught and tested. They have to trade part of their Easter holidays for the opportunity to learn if their dream job is right for them and if they are right for it. The best three make the cut and the opportunity of donating a further week, this time from their summer break, for work experience and even more scrutiny. The most accomplished survivor of that process gets offered a two-year apprenticeship – it’s as simple as that!
They join us after their summer holidays and then the real work starts for them and us, with one of us becoming their tutor (while still having to perform to some degree in their day job). Over the next six months, the tutor gradually becomes more of a coach, and by the second year we hope to back off more to guide and mentor in the same way as we would with more conventional new staff members.
There can be an element of pastoral input, such as “are you getting enough sleep and good nutrition, young man?” Luckily, one of our coaches is an ex-teacher so that sort of stuff comes naturally.
Like many things in life, we’ve learnt to expect the unexpected. One appentice was a natural, gifted and talented, he rocked that first year and we sat him down, ready to pile on our congratulations and the reward of elevated pay but he got in first with “my heart really lies in music, I’m going back to college to train to be a music producer!”. He wanted to rock literally and we were back to square one.
It’s like the old plate-spinning trick. We know that we have to keep loading new plates onto the sticks to keep up with, or even anticipate, the ones that might fall off. But we’ve had successes too and it’s very fulfilling work – few things can match the satisfaction of seeing the fantastic results of all that careful nurturing and knowing we helped to shape that person.
So could we sustain our whole operation through this approach? Training, nurturing and developing that latent talent into something of value, and then should someone leave somewhere in the middle or higher, everyone shoves up one and the apprentice takes up the slack? Theoretically yes, but everyone in the hierarchy has to be fighting fit with the potential to succeed to the role above them. It certainly isn’t cast-iron insurance that we won’t ever need to be back knocking on the door of a recruitment agency, but our reliance on them has been significantly reduced.
And we feel pretty good about it too.
Lawrence Gardner is head of ICT at Wrekin Housing Trust.