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Ann Pickering

Telefonica UK

HR Director

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National Apprenticeship Week: Apprenticeships O2-style


With the economy still faltering, unemployment at 8.4% and the promise of more job cuts to come, people are naturally becoming more and more worried about their employability and job security. 

With over one million 16 to 24 year olds out of work, the situation is even more acute for young people as the pressure to stand out from the crowd in a fiercely competitive employment market becomes ever greater.
Thankfully, however, government and businesses are responding. While apprenticeships have been an important entry route into the labour market for many years, the coalition is investing a great deal in making it easier for companies to take on apprentices and ensure that the quality of schemes continues to improve.  
In fact, recent figures from the National Audit Office revealed that there had been a 140% increase in the total number of apprenticeship places available between 2006/07 and 2010/11, as many businesses seized the opportunity to recruit fresh talent and train and develop skills.
At O2, we offer 12 advanced apprenticeships places each year, which are based in our operations department. The positions are open to anyone, regardless of age, and the programme lasts for three years.
During the first two years, apprentices complete four six-month placements and have the opportunity to experience a number of different job roles and teams before settling into their permanent position. It is only in the last nine months that they undergo more in-depth training in their chosen area of work. 
This practice has proven to be a really effective way to help us understand where we have skills gaps or requirements. We’ve also found that offering these placements is a great way of developing raw talent and ensuring that individuals have the knowledge, skills and experience that we need.  
Rotating apprentices
The aim is to promote open-mindedness and encourage all of our people to experience and learn about the entire business – and the apprenticeship scheme is a great place to start.
But this hasn’t always been the case. A few years ago, apprentices used to remain in the one department. While this scenario was simpler logistically, we found that it was becoming increasingly difficult to assess an individual apprentice’s strengths as they are, by definition, inexperienced in the role. The set-up also appeared to limit the development of their long-term potential.  
In our industry, the technological knowledge and skills required by our people can change rapidly. But one of the key objectives of our apprenticeship programme is to develop workers’ skillsets so that we can meet future skills requirements effectively. 
We discovered that, over the course of a three year apprenticeship, however, peoples’ learning and experiences could become outdated by the time they had completed their training. So about three years ago, the decision was taken to change the scheme’s structure and rotate apprentices between different departments.
But introducing this change wasn’t without its challenges. A rotation structure is, by nature, more challenging to manage as it requires a greater number of participants and the involvement of more departments. Our original concern was that the change could be met with resistance by existing employees, concerned that it would be time-intensive to deal with but not deliver tangible benefits.
The best advice, however, is to start slowly and gradually build buy-in from colleagues and the rest of the business. In our case, the apprentices themselves became ambassadors for the programme because their behaviour during placements impressed colleagues and managers. 
This meant that, over time, other managers began to approach us to request that an apprentice fulfil a specific role within their department. 
We also found that people benefitted from having as much information as possible before they took new recruits on in order to understand what was required of them. To get the best out of the apprentices themselves, meanwhile, it is necessary to offer them plenty of support and guidance along the way.
Shaping the future
This help can only be provided if there are good support structures in place, however. That is why it is important to ensure that all new employees are given proper line managers, mentors and task managers in each of the departments in which they work.
Another key way to engage staff in the scheme though is to demonstrate the tangible benefits that it provides. Not only does it result in the training up of a new group of recruits who have a broad base of experience to offer, but it also helps to boost staff retention and satisfaction. 
And the success of our advanced apprenticeship initiative led us to develop a higher apprenticeship scheme in order to provide our trainees with clear career progression opportunities.
As a result, all of our advanced apprentices are now offered the opportunity to apply for the higher apprenticeship, which includes participation in a work-based foundation degree course that can be topped up to full a Honours degree after an additional year of study. 
We are really excited by all of this because we believe that the apprenticeship scheme can help us shape the future of our company. But in order to share our learning experiences and encourage others to go down a similar route, we are hosting an event on Thursday 9 February with the East Berkshire Education Business Partnership and local businesses. 
Our chief executive, Ronan Dunne, plans to attend the meeting to talk about the benefits and some of our apprentices will likewise talk about their time on the scheme. In future, apprentices will also start visiting local schools in order to encourage students there to consider all the options open to them when making career choices.
We believe that it is important to support people in achieving their ambitions and to broaden their horizons as much as possible. Through careful planning, nurturing new recruits and securing the buy-in of the business, our apprenticeship scheme has been an effective way to help us realise this aspiration.
Ann Pickering is HR director at mobile phone operator, Telefonica UK.
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Ann Pickering

HR Director

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