I’d been looking at the issue of the lack of women in IT for a couple of years and trying to see how we could make a real impact when back in September 2011 I heard of a pilot scheme run by a colleague in our professional services division that had taken on 6 recruits aged 17 – 22, with a split of 2 male and 4 female, into an IT Apprenticeship scheme. Interest piqued, I met with scheme manager and was hugely heartened to hear that he had not purposefully gone out to get female recruits, it just happened that they were the right candidates and had interviewed well. By contrast we get around 10% -- 20% female intake from our technical graduate program and this is most likely driven by more girls having already chosen a non-technical path through university. Bingo! I thought -- this program could bring in both younger talent, and female engineering talent into Cisco in one hit.
As a three year apprenticeship scheme it would also give the business at the end of it fully trained engineers with real Cisco and hands on experience, with a degree equivalent qualification, who would be the same age (if not younger), than the Associate Systems Engineers who come through our graduate scheme. This could therefore compliment the current graduate scheme, not replace it, and give us access to different types of people who would not necessarily go through university, and not necessarily even go into IT or technology otherwise. On top of that the government funding for training makes the program financially attractive.
Within 5 months we had agreement to copy the scheme into sales and bring on 6 apprentices into the Systems Engineering (pre-sales) organisation and so we worked with an apprenticeship training provider to recruit the candidates.
The day before the Apprentice assessment day I was worried – The Systems Engineering Apprenticeship scheme was popular, but we only had 3 female candidates scheduled to be assessed, from a total of 20. Not to worry, I thought, we’ll see how they interview and hopefully one or two will be successful. The assessment day came and we had a fantastic turn out of highly motivated young people – but I was disappointed. Not one of the 3 females had turned up.
Talking it through with the training provider and the apprentices from the current scheme I came to a stark conclusion. The pilot scheme had been advertised as an IT Apprenticeship but our new scheme had been advertised as a Systems Engineering Apprenticeship. Could the name really have put off the girls we pondered? So we re-advertised, the same scheme, same pay and training, same duration, but titled it an IT Apprenticeship in a technical sales team – a more accurate description and one that brought us a handful of high quality female candidates. After interviewing all the shortlisted male and female candidates we made offers to the successful six – four female and two male, the best six from all the candidates.
During the assessments, interviews and subsequent meetings a couple of things have become clear. Firstly, if you want female applicants, don’t put the word ‘Engineering’ into the title – I could have kicked myself. Secondly, whilst we had four successful females, three of them had previously not even considered a career in technology and it was the diligence of the training provider that was able to get them through to the assessments. Lastly, we kept an open mind during interviews and it paid off – we decided up front that we were looking for candidates with potential, with enthusiasm and with the ability to learn. Had we focused on A-Levels or previous IT experience we would certainly not have got such a balanced final selection and I am convinced will pay us dividends over the coming years. The team are a fantastic group of people, all with different skills and styles and I feel privileged to be playing a part in starting their career path and training.
If you are interested in growing your own diverse workforce, take a look at IT Apprenticeships (www.apprenticeships.org.uk or www.e-skills.com/apprenticeships ). We have high hopes for ours and if this wave is successful we will replicate the scheme again and build a pipeline of new, enthusiastic and younger employees for Cisco and the IT industry. It is not every day that I feel really excited about having an impact at work, but this has genuinely been one of them and I will be watching the progress of the ‘young ducklings’ (as one of the mentors has named them), with great interest.