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The shift towards developing internal tech talent

Staff retention is currently a huge issue for companies across all industries, but nowhere more so than in the tech sector.

An online poll conducted by Gartner in February revealed that 26.5% of all tech workers are actively looking for new jobs, compared with a cross-industry average of 21%. A further 46.6% also described themselves as passive jobseekers who are open to offers.

According to Janine Chidlow, managing director of talent solutions provider Wilson HCG, one of the most effective means of countering any potential staff exodus is to focus on employee upskilling, cross-skilling and reskilling.

“All the talk among organisations these days is about moving to become a skills-based organisation,” she says. “People are only at the start of the journey, but I predict we’ll see a lot more focus on learning and development over the next few years – because organisations will have to. If they just pay lip service to it, it’ll reflect in their attraction and retention rates.”

Here, we look at three employers – xDesign, Custom Neon and BT – that are doing just that for a range of different reasons.

xDesign

As a digital transformation consultancy, it is imperative that xDesign cultivates a flexible skills base to make the most of each potential opportunity coming its way.

But there are other reasons why the Edinburgh-based organisation, which employs 500 staff, considers upskilling and cross-skilling its employees to be important.

Iris Winter, head of engineering, explains: “People who already know the company and its values and culture often perform better than those hired externally, and they’re also more likely to succeed. But it’s also about boosting happiness and morale, so people know they have opportunities to grow and move within the business and can keep their skills up to date.”

To this end, xDesign has introduced a range of initiatives. Until two years ago, it ran a full-company hack week. This involved the entire workforce being asked to come up with ideas to work on, from which Winter selected the ones she felt were most achievable.

Cross-functional project teams were created based on individual interests or a desire to try something new. For instance, someone in accounts might decide to give software development a go for the week.

People who already know the company and its values and culture often perform better than those hired externally, and they’re also more likely to succeed. But it’s also about boosting happiness and morale Iris Winter, xDesign

As Winter points out: “The focus wasn’t so much on creating something that worked as on people exploring different skillsets. We didn’t force anyone to do things they weren’t comfortable with – it was more about having the opportunity to explore.”

Ideas that came to fruition include a carbon footprint calculator and an internal music-sharing library. Some employees even opted to change disciplines based on their experience.

With the help of a toolkit of different support and learning materials and approaches, tailored to individual needs, one internal recruitment professional retrained as an iOS developer and two quality assurance professionals have now also become front-end developers.

Due to significant growth over recent years, the company now undertakes more targeted hacks both internally and with customers. Results here include the “myface” internal staff directory and an office “seat bot” that enables employees to book hotdesking spaces.

A third tool that was also born of a hackathon is the firm’s Skills Matrix. This enables employees to view skills profiles and understand what different skills levels mean. It likewise enables people to volunteer to become mentors in a particular skill, or indicate they would like to be mentored. As part of this process, mentees are also given opportunities to work with experts on projects to hone their skills further.

Another approach involves supporting employees to set up learning communities. Members meet regularly to discuss subjects of interest and invite relevant speakers to share their insights. In some instances, they have even set up a Capability Days conference at a nearby hotel offering a mix of workshops and presentations for interested parties.

Winter believes such activities play a key role in the firm’s 8% attrition rate, which is significantly lower than the industry average of 13.2%. Despite high rates of hiring over recent years, most new people are brought on board through word of mouth, recommendations or staff transfers rather than external recruitment agencies. Last year, the company was also deemed the UK’s number one Best Place to Work for Wellbeing.

There are two main secrets to its success here, Winter says. The first is encouraging a mindset shift so that employees are open to learning and continual improvement. The second is about creating a feeling of psychological safety and supporting different ways of learning.

“It’s important to create a safe culture,” she says. “Taking a ‘no ego’ approach is the idea that everyone’s opinion is valid, we all know different things, and we’re there to help, not judge – and that needs to cover everything from hiring and development through to progression.”

Custom Neon

Rather than trying to recruit new staff in a highly competitive tech talent market, Custom Neon decided that learning and development was the most effective way to keep on top of rapid technological change.

As a result, three years ago, the manufacturer and retailer of custom-designed LED neon lights and signs developed its own continuous learning methodology based on Agile approaches. Key goals here were to increase worker involvement and stay up to date with industry change. A third aim was to assemble a workforce that could lead in innovation terms.

Matt Aird, the company’s chief technology officer, says: “The idea that continuously bringing on new employees would not only be expensive but also have a detrimental effect on our team dynamic served as the driver for our approach. By investing in the professional development of our current employees, we can keep a steady, experienced workforce that can meet the expectations of the business.”

The two most effective approaches the organisation found for upskilling, cross-skilling and reskilling its employees were creating cross-functional projects and providing mentoring support.

Cross-functional projects usually run for between six and 12 months and involve 10 to 12 employees. In one example, members of the IT team worked with the marketing team to build a predictive analytics tool.

By investing in the professional development of our current employees, we can keep a steady, experienced workforce that can meet the expectations of the business Matt Aird, Custom Neon

This tool made it easier to understand customer preferences and behaviour, which improved the targeting of consumer marketing campaigns. But there were other benefits beyond simply building new products.

“IT team members are regularly given cross-functional assignments that not only fit their areas of competence but also expose them to other business domains, like product creation, customer service and marketing,” says Aird. “People who do this are more likely to be engaged and to value both the company’s overall success and the immediate outcomes of their job.”

In mentoring terms, meanwhile, less experienced IT team members are paired with experienced professionals in non-technical fields, such as project management and customer relations. The focus here is on helping them develop leadership skills and other soft skills.

As to the benefits of these kinds of activity, Aird points to internal surveys indicating that employee satisfaction has increased to 85%, from 70%, over the past three years. Retention rates have also jumped to 85%, from 75%. Conversely, training and recruitment costs have fallen by 30% due to lower staff turnover rates and less demand for external hiring.

There have been other advantages too, not least in terms of operational effectiveness.

“As a result of these skills-building initiatives, we’ve been able to react swiftly to shifts in the market and client needs,” says Aird. “We can also take on more challenging tasks and grow as a team due to our enhanced abilities.”

BT

To try to improve diversity and boost retention rates in a sector as riven by skills shortages as cyber security, BT has introduced a reskilling programme with candidates from all parts of its business.

The 30 learners in its first cohort, which ran from March to July 2022, did not require any technical or cyber security expertise, although they did have to be IT literate. Most had been working in call centres and retail shops, undertaking non-technical and non-managerial roles, for between one and 25 years, and were aged between 22 and 50.

Moreover, some 40% of participants were female, compared with a cyber security industry average of between 20% and 25%. People from ethnic minority backgrounds also made up 40% compared with a 26% industry average. A third were either neurodiverse or disabled.

As to how participants initially became involved in the programme, they were chosen from 200 applicants following an internal social media campaign. To assess both their aptitude and interest, each candidate was required to fill in a pre-learning and assessment form on BT’s Immersive Labs platform and undertake an interview.

Successful candidates were then enrolled into an online bootcamp provided by cyber security training specialist, Capslock. They also received professional guidance from individual Capslock mentors. Complementary BT mentors and buddies likewise focused on helping them get to grips with the telco’s own systems and networks.

We’re committed to training up our own employees and giving them the opportunities they deserve Aurorah Cheney, BT

By about halfway through the programme, participants were informed they had been assigned to one of 30 vacant positions based on their aptitude scores and location. While retention rates for those posts remain at 100%, two participants have also enrolled in further study. One is currently undertaking a BSc in computer science and the other a master’s degree.

Aurorah Cheney, BT’s security strategy and growth director, says: “From the outset, we asked people to agree to work in locations where we especially needed talent, but we also prioritised colleagues who’d been identified as showing potential. None of them had worked in a tech role before and few had much tech experience, so it shows just how much a programme like this can change lives.”

Participants have since become both internal and external ambassadors for the programme, which has been deemed a “real success”. In fact, the second cohort, which is currently in progress, received more than 1,000 applications without any promotional activity having taken place.

The scheme is currently being rolled out in phases, with groups of five at each stage. This is due to a need for security clearance for final roles, which is a time-consuming process.

“It’s all about finding new ways of developing a pipeline of diverse talent in an industry with a significant skills challenge in a landscape of increasing threats. But we’re also fundamentally committed to training up our own employees and giving them the opportunities they deserve,” Cheney concludes.

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