The transformative power of apprenticeships
For Openreach, apprentices aren’t just the extra pairs of hands needed to build the UK’s fibre network; they’re the beating heart of a strong, skilled and diverse workforce.
To celebrate National Apprenticeships Week (7-13 February) this year Openreach, the UK’s digital network, hosted a webinar, where some of the company’s apprentices had the opportunity to share their experience with Toby Perkins MP. Perkins is Labour’s Member of Parliament for Chesterfield and the Shadow Minister for Apprentices and Lifelong Learning
“It’s so useful to hear about and explore in more detail those lived experiences of apprenticeships, as well as the kind of situations apprentices were in previously and what it was that attracted them into an apprenticeship,” he said.
Nurturing apprentices is very much a part of Openreach’s core business strategy. The company recently announced it would be creating and filling 4,000 new roles in 2022, with roughly 3,000 of them being apprenticeships. The recruitment drive is the largest in Openreach’s history and new hires will be based throughout the UK, working to connect customers to the company’s ultrafast Full Fibre broadband network, which is on track to reach 25 million homes and businesses by December 2026.
“In the past five years, we’ve built 11 new training schools around the UK,” Kevin Brady, Openreach’s HR Director said. “Our training programme is Ofsted-accredited and that’s because those skills and apprenticeships are at the heart of our business. Ultimately, they are a differentiator for us in the race to Full Fibre. They're underpinning that growth and hopefully the transformation of the UK as a whole, too.”
Ant Jenvey-Sewry a 51-year-old engineering apprentice, who joined Openreach in November 2020 and was enthusiastic about his experience so far.
“Getting out there, hands on, has been immense,” I just think it's amazing that Openreach takes on everybody, from school leavers up to people my age. You know, I've got kids the same age of kids I'm working with. Just over a year ago, I was working in security and other jobs I didn’t enjoy, but Openreach has given me a feeling of worth, he said.
“Because I’m a certain age, I tended to look at apprenticeships as fetching the biscuits, making the tea or sweeping the floor – but they’ve come on so much. You start off like everybody else; hands on in the job and learning as you go. There are exams at the end of it, and it's amazing the way the company looks after you, nurtures you and builds you up, Ant Jenvey-Sewry added
Openreach sees the apprenticeship scheme as a means to improve diversity and inclusion within the company. Having removed the entry requirement for formal qualifications – all the company now asks for is “a driving licence, a strong work ethic, great customer service and an enthusiasm to work outdoors” – the business is seeing a greater number of applicants from varied backgrounds.
“We’ve removed what was a barrier for some people – and we’ve discovered this by launching a new identity network. For instance, we have a lot of colleagues who've come forward and said, I'm dyslexic, I'm dyspraxic, I'm neurodiverse. And they're very talented people but they often struggled in the formal education system, said Kevin Brady
Openreach has also been working on other ways to be more inclusive. After employing language experts to make its job adverts and descriptions more gender-neutral, it saw a significant increase in the number of female applicants for trainee engineering positions. Last year, it doubled its intake of women in these roles to 600.
“Historically, our engineering roles have been male dominated and not necessarily representative of the communities we served,” said Kevin Brady. One of the things I’m most proud of is this journey. We said by 2025 we want to get to 20% [female engineers] but I'm really aiming for 50/50.”
To encourage more women – and people from all ethnic backgrounds – into the workforce, Brady believes that is vital to promote the enormous benefits of apprenticeships.
“I think people need to hear that apprenticeships are well-paid, skills-based jobs. But in order for them to be meaningful jobs, you've got to invest properly in the training, and you've got to make sure your people are qualified. We're very proud of the investment because it’s not only a return for us as an employer; it's putting back into UK society and I think that's really important, particularly as we come out of the pandemic”, he said.
“It's not just about creating jobs; it's creating skilled jobs that give people long-term employability and a lifelong learning agenda”, Brady added.
Lifelong learning is certainly a priority for Noor Iqbal, who began her Openreach apprenticeship in December 2020. She had felt pressure to apply to university as she was doing her A-levels, but instead opted for the apprenticeship because she wanted to gain hands-on experience.
“I feel like the opportunities I've got from the apprenticeship have been amazing,” she told the webinar. “Being able to train and build up that skill set is something you wouldn't be able to do in a normal role. It’s hands-on and there’s a qualification at the end of it, too”, she added.
Noor’s employer may be leading the way on apprenticeships, but Openreach remains mindful of the challenges, particularly for smaller businesses – and they’re keen to make apprenticeships as accessible as possible for businesses and apprentices alike.
“Being a larger organisation makes it a little easier, but there is still a certain amount of bureaucracy that has built up around the apprenticeship programme,” said Kevin Brady, and then added “Of course it’s important to keep the standards high and put some pressure on the final assessment. But we need to make sure we're not making it too bureaucratic in the context of paperwork and filling forms out unnecessarily.”
Toby Perkins MP agreed, adding: “We know there are many small businesses that don't do apprenticeships now – and we also hear that talk about the bureaucracy attached and other reasons not to do so. If there's any sort of corporate learning in terms of what we can do to ensure more people have the opportunities that have been grasped so successfully by the apprentices on the call today, then I think that's absolutely vital for us to consider.”
To find out more about our apprenticeships or apply for a role with Openreach click here
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.