The BT Tower in London

The BT Tower in London

Bob-Soper-Dyer is head of apprenticeship programmes at BT Group. He is responsible for all matters associated to the governance and compliance of BT’s diverse apprenticeship programmes. While dealing with all external bodies relating to audits and inspections, such as Ofsted, Bob also deals with all Government agencies on policy and structure for employer type apprenticeships. While managing the BT apprenticeship internal delivery team and compliance operations, Bob is also responsible for all external relationships in relation to BT apprenticeships.

HRreview caught up with Bob on the very top floor of The Shard in London at the launch of this year’s National Apprenticeship Week and we talked about how BT manages to maintain such a high retention rate despite the millennial inclination to ride the job market.

Can you start by telling me a little bit about the history of the BT apprenticeship scheme?

For over fifty years now we have been running apprenticeship schemes. We have had apprentices who have risen up the ranks to become board members and two former apprentices with the company are now CEOs, so apprenticeship schemes are part of our culture.

At any given point in time we have 16,000 apprentices on the programme at any given point in time. This year we are growing because of the arrival of EE. EE already have apprentices, they have around 250 and this is expected to grow to around 350.

So, given that the apprenticeship schemes are so big, are you still recruiting outside of the schemes? Will it get to the point where the vast majority of recruitment coming into the company is via apprenticeships?

It probably will. We will have to bring in a lot of new troops because BT is expanding at a great pace. So, it is the young blood that is more essential to us. With the exception of the MOD we have more frameworks than most other employers. We also offer higher degrees as well and we have just started out own full degree course as well.

It’s the diversity of the frameworks that is note-worthy really. IT is one of the most considerable areas for apprenticeships, this includes areas such as cyber-security, software, networks and of course our entire TV and media broadcasting arm. TV is another huge expansion for us, we have just on-boarded another 25 apprentices just into the TV area alone. The volume of apprentices represents the diversity of the frameworks that we operate, so when young people look at BT, you can look at BT and say ‘well, I didn’t know you did finance, I’ll join you as finance, or I didn’t know you did digital marketing, I’ll join you as digital marketing. Many people still think of us as telephone lines, we install them, we deal in telephones and that’s all BT does.

I would say, actually, on that topic, that at a recent careers fair that I attended that a good amount of people came up to me, expressed an interest in the scheme and then said that it wouldn’t work for them as they wanted a career in mechanics, or something that they considered to be unrelated to BT and the work of the company. They assumed, quite naturally, that BT was only concerned with phones, but in fact we are the biggest fleet operator in Europe, we look after Royal Mail, we look after the National Grid.

As we are the biggest fleet operator in that area we have the highest number of specialised apprentices in that area with a further thirty plus on the way. People don’t tend to consider the situation that way. Since then the people who enquired have now applied to be apprentice motor – mechanics.

You mentioned earlier that some BT CEOs have actually risen through the ranks from being apprentices. This suggest that in the ‘Age of the Millennial’, when young employees are often not staying in jobs for long, that the retention rate at BT is still quite strong?

They do. When they join us as an employee, first and foremost they are the employee of the company and then we put them onto the training programme, which in this case is an apprenticeship programme, so when they finish, they finish and go into work and then they start doing the job that we wanted them to do when they joined the company. We are running a retention rate at the moment of 94.2 percent, which is a very high retention rate. This is because once apprentices have joined the company and gone through the apprenticeship programme, nearly all those who participate say that they want to start their career, although you will always get a slender amount who will say, after some consideration, that this isn’t for them.

Once they are placed in the company and working they start to see the opportunities that the firm offers in the long-run. Once you’ve done, one, two, three, sometimes four years you start to get to know the company. Once you are in the company and are aware of its work you get to see all the other areas that you might be able spread your wings and venture into, including journalism! We have no apprentices in that area, but we are trying.

It’s funny you should say that, because if I had been offered the chance to do an apprenticeship instead of university I think I would have taken it, due to the hands on experience that it gives you of the workplace. University is, of course, an extremely worthwhile experience and a lot of fun to boot, but sometimes, it can feel a little cut-off from the rest of the world, which isn’t good, when you have to dive straight into the workplace after three years in academia and immediately have to swim.

Yes, ironically, I’m currently trying to persuade my own son to go down the apprenticeship route rather than go to university. Trouble is, dad works in that business, so it immediately makes it uncool.

Do you think apprenticeships are a route to solving the issue of getting Millennials to stay longer in jobs?

I would certainly say so. The one thing an apprentice brings you is on day one you don’t know anything about the company, you don’t know anything about work even. By the time you finish your three or four-year placement, this tradition of the work-day and the company’s aims becomes embedded into you and this is why we have such a good retention rate. Apprentices grow into the company and the company grows into them and when they finish they feel comfortable, they know where they are going and they know what they can do.

We are trying to take an awful lot of learning from the apprenticeship programme into the graduate programme. The graduate programme is more volatile there is a little bit more of an attitude that goes along with it. People think that they’ve studied and graduated and this makes them a lot choosier and picky in terms of fliting across from one thing to another across the market. Apprentices do not tend to take that same path.
Why do you think there is that difference in attitude between apprentice recruits and graduate recruits?

I don’t know, I really don’t. I’m not sure if it’s just the nature of the beast, or whether they have not had a routine embedded into them from day one. But we hope to take all the successful elements of the apprentice ship programme and build them into the more fluid graduate scheme.