Talent and Re-Skilling - Casting the net wider

For telecoms operators, recruitment is no longer about hiring budding network engineers and computer science graduates. The digital transformation brings a broader skills requirement and as a consequence many are looking beyond their traditional recruitment strategies to bring in young talent with more diverse educational backgrounds, while at the same time seeking to rebalance gender and ethnicity divides in their organisations. But they face stiff competition for talent.


"Our industry will soon be hitting a retirement cliff, and with that, we will lose much of the experience," says Keri Gilder, CEO of Colt Technology Services. Telcos need to focus on all areas of diversity – age, gender, ethnicity, sexual preference and so forth – to create an inclusive culture to attract talent into telecoms, she says. "We are competing with the tech giants, big pharma and, let's be honest, the likes of Elon Musk. We must differentiate our industry."


It's a challenge all telcos are facing, including BT, which has made some significant changes to its graduate recruitment policies in recent years in order to attract a broader range of talent into the company. Earlier this year the UK incumbent created a new Digital business unit and is looking to bring new skills into that side of its business.


"In the talent attraction space today, BT isn't the first company you would think of for that work," admits Mark Murphy, Director of HR, Technology at BT. "That's one of the challenges we are really working hard to overcome – to illustrate to people that if you are an aspiring technologist in the UK, the breadth of technologies you can work on across our network and digital capabilities is like nowhere else, and we've got to find increasingly illustrative ways to tell that story."


Key to BT's recruitment strategy are its annual graduate and apprenticeship schemes. It had an intake of around 200 in September 2020: 75 graduates and 120-130 apprentices. History suggests those apprentices will stay with BT for longer than the graduates, having picked up a depth of technical specialism during their apprenticeship, while the graduates acquire broader but shallower skills, rotating around different areas of its technology business. Graduates start to churn three to four years after completing the programme; "the nature of high-quality technology grads is going to have an appetite to progress quickly," Murphy says.


"[Apprenticeships] are a fantastic way for employers to recruit fresh talent and ensure that they are building a digital workforce for the future," says Crissi Williams, CEO of the Institute of Telecommunications Professionals (ITP). "Most stay with the business after their apprenticeship ends and it has been shown that apprenticeships increase retention and motivation within an organisation."


BT's graduate scheme draws in talent from an increasingly broad range of disciplines and educational establishments. The Covid-19 pandemic put paid to its in-person customer showcases at Adastral Park, but the telco has moved that programme online and believes it is benefiting from reaching a greater number of people that way. Further, it is looking to strengthen its social media presence to publicise the work it is doing in the digital sphere – in IoT, cyber security, healthcare and so forth – as well as relying on traditional advertising and advocacy from existing graduate scheme members and apprentices.


"The attraction campaign has to have so many prongs because for the best and brightest the competition is really fierce," Murphy says.


As a result, the operator is now casting its talent net wider than ever before. Its graduate scheme was once the preserve of those with degrees in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) from Russell Group universities, but over the past few years has opened up to a broader section of university leavers, with the telco looking for "an interest in technology...rather than a pure computer science, physics or maths background," Murphy says. "They've got problem-solving ability, they've got a sharp curiosity and a sharp mind, but not necessarily in any particular discipline."


But the move away from pure STEM is about more than just educational background.


"There is still a gender imbalance in those taking STEM subjects which inevitably leads to an imbalance in the workplace," says Williams. She cites recent numbers from the WISE Campaign – set up to encourage girls and women into STEM – that show that women make up just 24% of the core STEM workforce, account for just over 10% of engineering professionals and 17% of IT professionals. "Many telcos are now realising that they are alienating an entire group of candidates if they look purely at STEM grads," she says.


"Organisations like ours and other technology companies just haven't got the right level of diversity in the teams," agrees Murphy. "There is a better balance of male and female colleagues in the digital teams...than there is today in the more network engineering field... [but] I want to even up both teams," he says. And "it's not about a numbers exercise," he insists. "Better technology outcomes are generated by a diverse workforce, a diversity in perspectives, an empathy for customer requirements. All of those things are improved by a stronger gender balance and a stronger ethnicity representation."


BT's new Chief Digital and Innovation Officer Harmeen Mehta, who recently joined the telco from Bharti Airtel, provides a strong role model and brings with her a strong social media presence too, Murphy notes. BT also ran a pilot project with Code First Girls, which specialises in free coding courses for women, in which 24 undertook a coding course based at BT's London HQ and were later offered jobs at the telco. "That was a complete departure from how we'd done it before and we're scaling that up this year," Murphy says.


Other telcos are looking at diversity too. In its outlook for 2021, Denmark's TDC shared plans for a new diversity and inclusion governance model "to ensure that our goal for achieving gender balance in leadership is driven and monitored just as rigorously as any other strategic or financial target." It aims for an equal balance of men and women at all management levels by 2025. Meanwhile, Spark NZ chief executive Jolie Hodson talked up the "50/50 gender split achieved across our board and leadership squad," at a strategy day in September and pledged to reach a 40:40:20 ratio at all levels of employment, that being 40% women, 40% men and 20% of any gender.


"Studies have shown that companies with diverse leadership have an edge in recruiting the best talent, better financial results, as well as happier, more productive employees," Antonietta Mastroianni, then CIO of Danish incumbent TDC, said in an interview with European telecoms industry body ETIS late last year. Mastroianni has since jumped ship to Proximus, where she is serving as chief digital and IT officer, a new role designed to help the Belgian firm, in its own words, "operate like a truly digital native company."


Telcos may not have the pulling power of the technology giants when it comes to drawing in new talent, but they are working hard to transform themselves into attractive places to work for all people.