We interviewed one contact centre to find out how they got on with setting up an apprenticeship scheme to encourage youngsters into the business.
Three years ago, Office Response, a 24/7 contact centre, made the decision to address staffing issues by offering an apprenticeship scheme to local 16-to-19-year-olds.
Managing Director Iain McGregor, who’s proud to be an Ambassador of the government-run National Apprenticeship Scheme, told Call Centre Helper that he became involved after meeting a training officer at an industry awards ceremony, who suggested apprenticeships to him.
Over time, Iain admits that he’s become “quite passionate about it”, and the company’s involvement in the scheme, which not only benefits the business, but also addresses the broader social issue of channelling NEETs – the government term for youngsters not in education, employment or training, towards a positive future.
The company takes on 10 apprentices a quarter.
Whilst the apprenticeship currently runs for six months, the government is in the process of putting a “minimum on the length of the apprenticeships,” because, Iain explains, “some people abuse the system and approach it as low-cost labour.”
At Office Response, they “understand that it isn’t” low-cost labour. Although the wages of apprentices are only a third of regular employees, “the hard costs are also a third,” says Iain. That figure includes the cost of day-release – theory-based learning – and providing for them. The company loses a further third on time invested in the apprentices.
There are also additional responsibilities that don’t come with regular employees, which include being open to inspections from Ofsted, because some of the apprentices are still minors. While some of the youngsters, Iain says, are dealing with difficult personal issues outside of work, he admits their hands are tied on how much they can get involved. Instead, all they can do is feed back to the college and leave it to them and their experience of dealing with such situations.
Whilst it might appear that apprenticeships are time-consuming, expensive and not worth the hassle, Iain believes the benefits far outweigh the costs. By the end of the apprenticeship, what you end up with, he says, is a “young employee who’s very grateful for the opportunity, whose ‘buy in’ to your organisation is huge. And we’ve found that attrition of these guys is much lower, and they’re able to do the job equally well.”
The company’s apprenticeship programme is connected to the City of Bristol College, which offers a pre-sifting process of applicants to ensure “they fit a certain profile”. Once approved, potential apprentices have the opportunity to attend an open day at the company offices with their parents and friends. This enables them to see the offices in which they’d work. “We explain what the career here is about. What the company is about,” Iain says.
The youngsters are then able to apply for an interview, and both the college and Office Response are involved during the selection process. Once accepted into the ‘Academy’, the apprentices begin a six-month structured programme, which involves day-release with a trainer from the College. Whilst standard day-release sees apprentices attending college, the company pay the college for a trainer to attend their offices.
During the induction process, the managing director takes the time to meet the new intake of apprentices, which he finds breaks down barriers, enabling them to feel at ease with him. This relaxed, friendly environment often means that in time, the MD has apprentices knocking on his door when they’re in need of some career or life advice.
While some apprentices take the full six months to complete the NVQ, others adapt quickly and are competent within six weeks. Those who are able to work in the normal contact centre during their apprenticeship are paid bonuses based on their performance.
To date, the completion rate is over 80%, which exceeds the national average of 77%. For the few that drop out it tends to be their choice because they’re not able to manage the workload, or discover that the apprenticeship is not for them.
Graduates achieving their NVQ 2 with a call centre module, or customer services module are offered jobs within the contact centre. For a few, the apprenticeship has been a stepping-stone onto more challenging positions within the company, working as internal trainers or supervisors.
Office Response apprentices have also been nominated for and won awards. One apprentice was entered into the South West Contact Centre Awards and came second in the “Agent of the Year’ category.
Last November, Francesca Fry, another apprentice, was named ‘Contact Centre Apprentice of the Year’ at the City of Bristol Apprenticeship Awards, which celebrates the successful achievements of both employers and apprentices in the region. Francesca now works within the contact centre as part of the team.
But through the process of implementing the scheme they’ve come to understand that the apprentices “don’t do it for the money”. What’s become apparent is that what’s most meaningful to the youngsters is “the opportunity” the apprenticeship offers.
Mel Morton is a freelance journalist.