Tom Keeney

Tom Keeney, Chair of BT Yorkshire and The Humber regional board

Forging the links to grow our skills

Tom Keeney, Chair of BT’s Yorkshire and The Humber regional board and head of employee relations, tells Mike Hughes how its influence on the skills debate reaches from the smallest country lane to the information superhighway.

Among the key collaborations that are changing the skills landscape across Yorkshire, BT’s work with schools and small businesses is a flagship model of how to combine scale and passion for the good of the region.

With a wide-ranging impact that starts with young children being encouraged to showcase their innovations and continues to degree level apprenticeships and support through every stage of a business’s development, they are a vital element of the wider picture.

In Yorkshire Tom Keeney is a key influence, as chair of the regional board, head of BT employee relations and a member of the LEP board. He knows where the issues are and can bring in considerable resources to help find solutions and keep the skills pipeline flowing.

“There is a demand for a wide variety of skills in Yorkshire, but with so many years of experience at the forefront of the industry, BT’s focus is on what a deeper, almost granular understanding of the situation can bring to the tech sector,” he told me. “We have led a number of initiatives here and over the years have identified a wider need to prepare young people for the world of work as well as just equipping them with the right skills. I am particularly keen on helping them fit into a new workplace, being part of a team and building their confidence, so we spend a good bit of time on that personal side.

“Whether they are younger people or older ones coming to us for retraining, that first induction period is critical to how they will perform. For any organisation it is hard to get the right people in the right role, but retaining them is also a key focus. We hear a lot about skills acquisition, but skills retention is also a key target and BT is proud of its strong record here in making sure workers are fulfilled, happy and engaged with their work and what BT is doing.

“This asks a lot of our trainers, in embedding the importance of personal skills as well as technical skills, but our apprenticeship schemes have been going for 50 years now and over the last few years we have been offering 1,000 places a year across a range of sectors, so the trainers have an instinct about dealing with the people as well as the skills.”

BT is still the organisation people look to be a pioneer and early adopter of the latest technology, and training its own staff can be the ideal place to implement it. At their latest recruitment event, Openreach, the wholly owned and independently governed division of BT Group – neatly summed up by Keeney as being much more than ‘up the poles and down the holes’ these days – ran a trial letting its possible new workers look at life as a field engineer using virtual reality. Each candidate got a headset to experience what exchanges look like and what work might lie ahead, which immediately engaged these eager young minds.

“Because we take health and safety very seriously what these emerging technologies also help us do is take any possible risks away. You can’t replicate the dreadful weather some of our field engineers have to work in, but you can give new recruits access to a lot of what they could be working with in a safe environment,” he said.

OpenreachSuch a level of engagement is important for people who aren’t sure about stepping out of their normal environment and taking this next step from education to employment. It is important that those of us who are more experienced and further along the careers path help them make that transition as smoothly as possible.

By equipping their new staff with a fully-rounded skill set and bringing out the best in their individual characters and personalities, BT is also identifying its future leaders – those young people who could become managers and continue that long BT tradition of having senior staff who know the business from the ground up. There is a career to be built here that can last for 40 even 50 years, with the early investment in young talent paying off at every stage, wherever it takes place within this vast organisation.

Keeney explained: “On our apprentice scheme alone, we will be offering roles from engineering, computing and finance to security, customer service, cyber security and HR. One thing that I hold dearly is that they all bring something fresh to BT, because not only do you get the skills of the individual, but you get the attitude and the confidence they have at their stage of life. They also bring in a tech literacy which can be important working alongside people like me who have the experience, but not such a natural affinity with technology.”

BT’s operation – with more than 100,000 staff helping generate profits of more than £3.5bn – has the sort of scale that can change the fortunes of a region, so managing their resources so that the smallest customer and the largest multinational are kept connected takes an understanding and passion for the area.

“I am a believer in bringing new people in so that other people can experience those new elements, and I know from my role on the employment and skills board at the LEP over the last five years that much of what we are doing with BT has a much wider regional impact across Yorkshire and around the Humber,” said Keeney.

“I am proud of that effect and will always be a passionate ambassador for the area – it is a great region to be in with everything going on here, which means we are starting to see graduates staying here and not just jumping on a train to London. That means there is a big demand for skills and employment here and we need to manage that at BT and within the LEP and work with the private and public sector to bring long-term success to the region.

“I think across Yorkshire there are successful elements of the skills battle and some that we still need to work on. There is a very strong understanding of what is required here, underpinned by good data to make sure we get it right. The whole place seems vibrant and is attractive for people to live, work and stay here.

“But that success brings demand in a lot of areas, not least housing and skills, that need to be fed and managed with a simple target of matching supply to demand to look after the whole picture of what it means for someone to work here. We are still a hidden gem to some extent, so when people like me discover it, we tend to love it and stay and we must look after those people.”

BT has always worked closely with young people, well before they might consider their career options, on hugely-successful projects like Tech Factor, where innovative schools and academies can win £10,000. It speaks to hundreds of schools and colleges every day to understand the role that technology plays in the education environment, and see how schools are preparing students for the future by making them more tech savvy.

At the other end of the education ladder, the company is constantly investing in high level skills to ensure a permanent supply of trained staff for itself and eager companies looking to invest in the area.

TrainingIts flagship apprenticeships make sure that there is a clear progression plan from any starting point, with Advanced Apprenticeships working towards Level 2 or 3 NVQ and a knowledge based qualification such as a BTEC, then Higher Apprenticeships for Level 4, consolidated by a foundation degree, and then Degree Apprenticeships.

The initiatives BT has developed to increase Tech skills have had an influence over the whole sector, from the fresh approach of young people and young businesses to the experience of skilled operatives and globally-successful partners.

“I have seen through my LEP role that we have a lot of small businesses in the region and they have a significant effect on the economy, so it’s vital they have the right access to skills and education to grow their businesses, said Keeney.

“Funding can be challenging because smaller businesses don’t necessarily have the clout and the support to see training and skills as an investment and a priority, but I see the LEP make a particular effort here because there is so much potential for the region and you just never know in those early days what these companies will grow into.

“In BT we have formal programmes like the Infinity Lab where we invite start-ups who could one day be our partners and suppliers to showcase what they are doing.”

“In our Superfast BB we have technology which enables them to transform in terms of their future success because it can give them access to important things like online training which can make such a difference in a competitive market. That can help all businesses, but it will impact smaller firms much more.

“We see it as more than just a commercial operation for BT. There is real purpose here, and not just in the skills arena but in education and healthcare and so many more sectors where access to technology is a vital tool. We have an ambition to reach five million children by 2020 to help develop robotics and coding skills that will be vital for their futures.

“Now, there will not be five million people coming to work for BT, but we know that by working with that number we can send hundreds of thousands out into industry and into their own businesses. This has a positive progressive effect for the whole region because these tech-savvy children are becoming tech-literate and understanding how their hardware does what it does.”

The pulling power of BT is important here, attracting partners from all over the world to share best practice and form collaborations with far-reaching effects for Yorkshire youngsters who are just starting to realise the implications of breakthrough technologies like the Internet of Things and are at the earliest stage of planning careers, which might make them the innovators of the future and a key asset for the region.

“We employ around 7,000 people in Yorkshire and have a strong affinity with the young people here and the communities they are growing up in, and what we can do to help them, either as part of the skills debate or by building a connected future for them.

“We are proud and happy to step up to that goal and recognise what it can mean when the Openreach van pulls up outside a primary school with a tech literacy need or a small village business wanting to grow its skills base or share a solution. There are certainly some location challenges, but we have been massively successful in getting out to more than 90% of the county already.”

Clearly Keeney, backed by BT’s breadth of support and experience, believes passionately in the tech sector as a pivotal part of the regional economy at every level and sees the nurturing and guidance of future talent as a responsibility and an investment we all have to make.