The Organisation Aiming To Change The World Of Work | SLMan
How many of us can honestly say our careers come down to what we studied at university? In reality, the numbers are probably pretty small, and yet the perceptions around the value of a university education – and specifically how it relates to landing a job – appear to be set in stone. On a mission to change that is Euan Blair, founder of tech start-up WhiteHat, which aims to encourage more young people to pursue apprenticeships instead. Here, the son of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair tells us more.

Let’s start at the beginning – what made you want to set up White Hat?

I started my career in investment banking, alongside people with very similar backgrounds and degrees from the same small handful of universities. It didn’t make sense to me that these credentials were for some reason deemed a prerequisite for a job that required completely distinct skills from those taught in higher education – I had a degree in Ancient History! I had always been interested in education and employment, and became increasingly focused on how a wider range of people could get access to the very best careers. I subsequently left banking to join an organisation helping long term unemployed people find work, Sarina Russo Group, and eventually became the UK CEO. But again, I was frustrated at the fact that too often we were helping people into any job rather than supporting them to build a long-term career they were really excited about. The barrier was a system that filtered people based on academic requirements and where, too often, your background defined your destination. Lots of the people we helped also had degrees but hadn’t been taught the things they needed to be successful in the labour market. So the idea was to build something new, an outstanding alternative to university that would allow a much more diverse group of people to succeed, and access the very best careers. 

Why do you think the business took off so quickly?

There’s a broad acceptance that a one-size fits all university model isn’t working for society, companies, or for individuals. Companies are spending ever increasing amounts retraining recent graduates just so they are ready for the jobs they hired them to do. At the same time, universities aren’t delivering on social mobility, with huge attainment gaps for those from black and some minority ethnic backgrounds, and those claiming free school meals. The return on investment of a university degree is coming under increasing scrutiny and at the same time, we’re going to need mass retraining and reskilling over the next few years as a consequence of digital transformation, and the academic system isn’t going to be able to support that.

Was there anything in your career to date which set you on this path?

The lesson I learnt at the Sarina Russo Group was that you can transform someone’s life through a job but it’s not enough to patch up a failing system, we need to deliver a system-wide change. That’s what WhiteHat is delivering – the organisation was set up to create a diverse group of future leaders through an outstanding alternative to university. 

You went to several high-profile universities – so why set up a company that offers a different route?

There weren’t high quality apprenticeships available in tech and professional services when I left school. Now, I’d be much more likely to do an apprenticeship. Despite having been to university, almost all the skills I’ve used in my career to date are those I learned in my first few jobs. There’s a clear problem with a model that expects everyone to conform to it, and pursue a purely academic route, rather than providing real choice and a diversity of options.

Can you tell us more about what the organisation aims to do?

We are challenging the assumption that you need to have a university degree to have a great career, and that a shot of learning is enough to see you through what could be 50 years of work. We’re living in an era of unprecedented technological change and 85% of the jobs that will exist in 2030 don’t exist today. Employers need skills as well as knowledge, particularly in areas like digital, tech, and project management and graduates are not being equipped with these skills. We focus on three areas – giving employers a way of measuring potential that doesn't just look at academics or work experience; training people through applied learning, teaching them to problem solve effectively supported by a 1:1 coach; and finally giving our apprentices access to a great social and networking experience through meetups, societies, sports teams, and events, so they're not missing out. Our apprentices are working at some of the world's top companies, from Google and Facebook to Bloomberg, Omnicom, Visa, and Clifford Chance.

How are the apprentices supported through the process?

Every apprentice gets access to 1:1 coaching, which supports them through their learning and helps them navigate any challenges they might face in the workplace. They also gain membership of our apprentice community, where they can spend time on personal and professional development as well as networking at our community events (we have 15 a month, currently all delivered virtually). In addition, our talent team provides advice and guidance through the interview process if someone is applying for a job, and if they’re reskilling while already in employment, our team will discuss their long-term career objectives to help support them in achieving the right outcome.

The heart of the problem is that knowledge is over-commoditised, especially in an age where you can find any fact online.

How do apprenticeships prepare you for the world of work? 

Rather than teaching knowledge in a valuum, apprenticeships combine learning and work intrinsically. They’re rooted in applied learning rather than theoretical or academic learning, and they focus on the whole individual (skills, knowledge, behaviours). You learn not simply by acquiring knowledge, but by immediately using that knowledge to solve a problem in the workplace. The heart of the problem is that knowledge is over-commoditised, especially in an age where you can find any fact online: the key to a successful career is having the right skills, and an apprenticeship does that much better than traditional classroom learning.

Are there any statistics which show a link between apprenticeships and a successful career?

The stats show the advantages of apprenticeships really clearly. Around 91% of apprentices go into jobs or further study, which is higher than for university students. Your average graduate lasts just a year and a half at their first employer – half the rate for apprentices. 

In your view, what shortcomings currently exist in our education system? 

The biggest challenge is the lag in perceptions. The growth areas for apprenticeships are in tech, digital, and professional services, but that’s not yet fully reflected in the public consciousness. There’s still a perception in some areas that apprenticeships are for those looking to work in the trades. League tables still focus exclusively on university destinations, rather than things like the type of job their pupils go onto or their career earnings. We have a brilliant outreach team that work with schools and community organisations to promote the message around apprenticeships and a range of apprentice leaders from our community who give talks about their experience to raise awareness.

Who should think about applying for an apprenticeship via White Hat?

Apprenticeships really are for everyone. We have apprentices from a broad range of backgrounds across socio-economic status, ethnicity, gender, and educational attainment. From an age perspective, they are as crucial for people who want to reskill in areas like data analytics or project management as they are for those just starting their careers. When it comes to placing people in their first jobs, we focus on school leavers choosing not to go to university, but if you’re someone already in work who wants to learn new skills, then that’s a conversation we’d happily pick up with your employer. 

Are there any requirements needed to apply for an apprenticeship?

There are no barriers to participation in apprenticeships, though you’ll need to have evidence of some basic English and Maths skills. These can be taught alongside the apprenticeship if you don’t already have them. We want to ensure that the best jobs of the next decade don’t simply go to the same parts of society as the best jobs of the last decade. Through our contextual recruitment platform, we’ve ensured that 56% of the apprentices we find roles for are non-white, and a quarter are black. Meanwhile over half are women, including in tech roles that have historically been dominated by men. 

Is it possible to apply for an apprenticeship in a specific field?

Absolutely – in fact all apprenticeships are built around skill sets needed for specific roles. We focus on areas that will prepare apprentices for the future of work, like project management, digital marketing, data analysis, software engineering, leadership, and business operations. One of the consequences of rapid digital transformation is that every company is on a journey to becoming a tech company, no matter what its core business, and requires these skills to thrive. In data science alone the Government estimates there are currently 100,000 unfilled vacancies.  

Apprenticeships really are for everyone – we have apprentices from a broad range of backgrounds across socio-economic status, ethnicity, gender, and educational attainment.

If you're unsuccessful, can you re-apply?

Yes, you can reapply and we try and provide clear feedback where possible. Ultimately, we’re running a competitive process, so we’ve developed a whole suite of additional resources to help people start learning as soon as they begin the application process. There’s a wealth of free online courses out there that can help you, and we signpost people to these resources so as many people as possible can access them.

If you get a placement, how long does it typically last? 

Apprenticeships last between a year and 18 months and happen alongside a full-time job. They end with a set of assessments that lead to a qualification in your specific field. Afterwards, the vast majority of apprentices stay with their existing employers.

How likely is it an apprentice will land you a job afterwards?

We work hard to find the most talented people and give them world class training. As a result, 91% of our apprentices get a promotion or a pay rise over the course of their apprenticeship. That’s a massive indicator that the skills they’ve developed are giving a real return to the businesses they work in. About 98% of WhiteHat apprentices stay in work or further training after their apprenticeship ends, which is significantly above national apprenticeships average, and the equivalent stats for university graduates. 

So how many of your partners keep their apprentices on? 

About 87% of apprentices remain at the company where they did their apprenticeship. One of our biggest areas of focus though is around promoting lifelong learning. This means that when you complete one apprenticeship, you can return to another at a higher level at some stage afterwards. Everyone will need to relearn and reskill given the huge technological and labour market changes we’re seeing, so this approach can really set apprenticeships apart.  

Has it been difficult to encourage big businesses to get on board?

Over the last couple of years, and in 2020 in particular, diversity and digital transformation have gone to the top of the agenda for every major business and every CEO. This has helped to galvanise interest in apprenticeships. Very often the programmes we run are being delivered by the company’s leaders, who see the value in attracting talent that better reflects society and in embarking on the reskilling programmes they’ll need to remain competitive over the years ahead.

How does the business work in tandem with the government apprentice scheme?

In the UK, firms get to take advantage of the apprenticeship levy, where money is paid into a pot that can only be redeemed on apprenticeship training. This ensures that the cost of training an apprentice is covered for those organisations through the levy.

If you're a business keen to get involved, what's the process?

If you’re interested in establishing an apprenticeship programme, or becoming an apprentice yourself, you should contact us for a conversation at Whitehat.org.uk. We’ll offer advice on how to set up something that delivers on your organisational aims, whether it’s tackling a skills shortage, or attracting the diverse talent you need to be successful.

 

Visit WhiteHat.org.uk

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