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BT says geography biggest barrier to finding apprentices

Telecoms provider BT says that skilled young people for apprenticeships are readily available, but that it struggles to find them outside of London

BT has no trouble finding apprentices in the capital, but struggles to find willing candidates outside of London.

According to the head of BT Group apprenticeship programmes, Bob Soper-Dyer, geography is one of the main barriers for apprenticeships that the company faces across the UK.

“You don’t always get the volume of people applying in areas where you would want them to,” Soper-Dyer said. “Across the northern areas we’re always a bit tight.”

This is a particular issue for BT Openreach, which is looking for apprentice engineers, and struggles most to find them in areas such as Scotland.

Soper-Dyer highlighted the importance of partners in offering apprenticeships, especially where specific skills need to be taught.

The company is currently working on finding good partners to support its digital marketing initiative. It said BT is “just opening  the door” on teaching creative digital skills.

“We have BT TV and we’re looking there at TV media and TV skills – in both cases we tend to focus on a partner who can bring in those technology skills and education,” Soper-Dyer said.

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One of the company’s main targets is cyber security – for “obvious reasons”, said Soper-Dyer – and candidates with cyber security knowledge are in high demand across the UK.

“Cyber is a big area. We’re recruiting over 100 apprentices into the cyber area,” he said. “We focus mainly on software and network skills; they’re our core areas.”


In the company’s London branches and innovation centre at Adastral Park in Suffolk, Soper-Dyer said BT was “fortunate” as lots of candidates apply for its various divisions.

“We operate 15 frameworks across the company from finance through to cyber security through to customer service through to maintenance, and at the moment we have a very high number of people asking to join IT, which probably puts us in a position where we have a good choice,” he said.

The IT industry is predicted to need skilled workers to fill 756,000 jobs by 2020, and many graduates are leaving university without the necessary skills to enter a graduate scheme or technology job.

A route for the certain

Soper-Dyer said that if students know what career they are aiming for before reaching higher education, an apprenticeship could be a more suitable path.

“If you know what you want to do, whether that be engineering, technology or research – if you know you want to be there, then go do an apprenticeship because you get a job, you get paid and you’ve got a career mapped out for you,” he said. “You can get exactly the same skills and qualifications doing that.”

However, he added that there will “always be a need for university” as many will not know what career they hope for and will need to be given a broader skills set and an opportunity to follow many different directions. “Not all individuals know where they want to be in life and if you’re not sure where you want to be but you’ve got a rough idea, then probably university is a good place to go and get your further education.”

Living proof

BT higher apprentice Sean Norgate is gaining his NVQ foundation degree with the telecoms provider. He joined the company after struggling to gain a traditional university degree.

Many external influences, such as teachers and parents, lack awareness of the advantages of apprenticeships and can dissuade young people from taking that route.

Norgate said: “I’m living proof that some people just do better in an apprenticeship than at university.”

All of the roles Norgate has focused on since joining BT have been IT-based. He settled on working for the TV division of BT, which has just launched the first ultra high definition channel.

“We get to learn how all of our different teams fit together in the workplace. We get to know everyone,” Norgate said. “As a graduate I probably wouldn’t have got that.”

Helping businesses provide apprenticeships

To encourage more companies to take on apprentices and give young people an opportunity to thrive in the workplace early, Norgate shared his experience at a Rise to the Top event during National Apprenticeship Week 2016.

During the event, companies such as Starbucks, Prezzo, Fortnum and Mason, Deloitte, Goldman Sachs and Greene King pledged to take on more apprentices, with all businesses at the event promising to take on 200,000 new apprentices between them.

Carol Muldoon, vice president for partner resources for Starbucks, said that the company had been taking on apprentices for four years, and it had led to higher retention of employees. Starbucks had been trying to tackle the increasingly high turnover of its café baristas.

Muldoon pledged that Starbucks would take on another 1,000 apprentices by 2020, and outlined a focus on other areas within the business over the coming years.

“We’re going to introduce head office apprenticeship schemes in various things from digital to finance to HR to really broaden out the envelope of all the things we do,” she said. “We’re also going to introduce more e-learning skills to help young people and all people with maths, English language and management of their own finances.”

More opportunities

Many initiatives have been launched recently to encourage a wider audience of people to pursue tech and digital careers, including women and ethnic minorities.

The business secretary, Sajid Javid, said more should be done to give opportunities such as apprenticeships to young people from all backgrounds.

“Every young person has the potential to succeed and everyone should be given the opportunity to succeed,” he said.

Javid said the government’s aim was to create three million apprenticeships during the current parliament. “For too long apprenticeships have been seen, sometimes, as a second-class option – a safety net for kids who didn’t quite make it to A-levels or university,” he said.

“Apprenticeships are real jobs that pay a real wage and provide a real education. They are an excellent way for young people to develop the skills that they need.”

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