Over the past few years, there have been many reports of a digital skills shortage.

One way of addressing the volatile digital jobs market is to train up some apprentices who can bring the habits of a digital native and the hunger and loyalty of someone new to the world of work.

I caught up with Richard Gregory, Global Director of HR Operations and Organisational Effectiveness at Rentokil Initial, to ask how they have started to do just that.

The skills shortage

Before we look at Rentokil, it's worthwhile looking at some figures.

TechCity UK's third annual Tech Nation report released in early 2017 revealed that talent supply is the number one growth challenge for more than 50% of digital tech businesses in the UK.

A third of digital employers say candidates are asking for too much money, with the average salary for digital tech roles rising 13% from 2012 to 2015. The disparity between the average salary for digital and non-digital roles is now at 44%.

Fairly obviously, though digital tech businesses require more of these types of skills, there are digital roles to be filled across all sectors and this competition for talent is a big problem for HR departments everywhere.

wages

Other studies paint a similar picture. A BIMA study reported that each digital agency had an average of 3.5 unfilled vacancies, and 2015 Econsultancy research found 40% of clientside respondents view recruitment of digital skills as a significant barrier to progress.

econ skills study

This skills shortage brings with it a need for better training, for more effective employer branding and for personal development that will prevent staff from jumping ship.

We've looked before at some of these issues as tackled by RS Components' HR and digital marketing departments. But what about apprenticeships?

How has Rentokil Initial used apprenticeships?

Coming at the issue from a learning and development perspective, Richard Gregory at Rentokil Initial first wanted to work with apprentices to improve the digital skills within the HR team.

He says "What we noticed was the way that people learn is dramatically changing. They're moving to more bitesize, on-demand content, such as three minute videos on YouTube. There’s a lack of skills [to enable this] in the wider HR and learning industry.

Gregory points out the lag in training techniques used by large organisations, which for "the past years have talked about classroom learning and e-learning when actually people’s time for learning becomes less and less."

Training needs to be approached in a way that makes it easily consumable for employees, with Gregory highlighting the example of Lynda.com, now part of LinkedIn learning after a $1.5bn acquisition in 2015, and its library of videos that work across devices.

Rentokil Initial was struggling to recruit people with the right skillset to develop this type of training content, so Gregory and Rentokil created a number of creative & media apprenticeships, working with Arch Apprentices. These apprentices began by creating video content for internal training, everything, as Gregory describes it, "from ‘what is a rat?’ to ‘how do you control a rat infestation?’, all the way up to our new internet-of-things connected rodent traps."

This training content proved so successful that the team then began to productise it, delivering innovative training to Rentokil customers. For example, major hotel brands could provide their housekeepers with digital training about bedbugs - What are they? Why are they bad? How to spot an infestation etc.

Rolling out apprenticeships across the organisation

Rentokil has employed fully 10 apprentices in organisational effectiveness roles, working on the creative and media side, or with the digital business teams. "We’ve gradually expanded the apprenticeship scheme out into our digital marketing functions, into our IT functions," says Richard Gregory, Global Director of HR Operations and Organisational Effectiveness.

He continues, "The apprenticeship levy combined with the success that we’ve had with the small pilot of apprentices in head office, has meant we’ve started to become an employer provider. We’re looking to embed apprentices throughout the organisation, everything from sales, all the way through to the technician in a van doing pest control. So the levy is opening our eyes to what the possibility is to transform skill development within our business."

What do apprentices bring to the team?

Gregory was enlivened when discussing exactly what the Rentokil Initial apprentices bring to the team. "They are very enthusiastic," he said, "they have chosen not to go to university but are so much more enthusiastic. They are hungry, which means they are able to develop far quicker."

And the skills these apprentices bring enable them to pick up digital and creative tasks easily. "They are digital natives," Gregory says. He expands on this, telling me that "One of the apprentices said it’s fantastic to be able to come into work to be able to do something that I would do in my own time. These people have grown up with computers. Developing videos on YouTube, creating 3D games etc. – to provide them with an outlet where they’re developing wider business skills and also getting paid, it’s fantastic."

Backing up some of the research mentioned above about salary, Gregory says "We couldn’t find that skillset in the market – if we could, it would’ve been cost prohibitive." He also emphasised the character of some of the Rentokil apprentices as people who "don’t expect things handed to them on a plate, realise it’s an apprenticeship and go out of their way to experience new things."

Branding Rentokil as a digital employer of choice

I questioned Richard Gregory from Rentokil Initial HR about the branding of the company as an employer - it doesn't take a genius to understand that making people want to work for a business synonymous with pest control might be a tough ask.

He makes a passionate pitch for some of the interesting work the company is doing - "The professionalism and the digitisation of pest control is actually something that Rentokil is clearly leading on in the UK and across the globe. As we start to see in emerging markets the widening of the middle class, people are becoming more and more demanding of pest control services. And particularly with some of the legislation we’re starting to see coming out of Europe and other markets in terms of pesticides you can use, actually we need to be innovative as a business and as an industry."

"Digital innovation is part of that," Gregory continues, "thinking of the internet of things and our Pest Connect system - we're connecting up all our rodent traps across the globe so not only do we know when they’ve been triggered but also so we can monitor them proactively for clients."

iot trap

IoT trap

This Pest Connect scheme is indeed impressive. Rentokil has rolled out more than 20,000 IoT rat traps in 12 countries throughout 2016. These traps can remotely identify an emerging rodent problem and inform its customer, through a digital interface, of exactly where the infestation is concentrated.

Other digital innovations include mobile apps for speed reporting during site surveys, service apps that allow technicians to optimise their routes and increase productivity, and service tracker apps for customers.

Clearly it's a fascinating time for an industry that stands to make big efficiency gains through connected and mobile technology, allowing for more intelligent service.

There's also a role for big data at Rentokil Initial - assesing pest levels, looking at food safety, and much more. The internet of things and mobile apps necessarily bring with them more reliable data collection and on a grander scale. Making sense of this data is an exciting challenge.

Getting these messages across to potential employees is what Rentokil is working on right now.

Digital in everything Rentokil does

Richard Gregory, Global Director of HR Operations and Organisational Effectiveness, argues that apprenticeships will play a big role in digital education. Digital is already part of everything the company does, due to its dispersed workforce and client measurement. So, he asks, "How do we train employees in the latest techniques, or allow them to ask their experts throughout the business?"

Gregory argues that "Unless you can build the network, skillset, the workforce in a cost effective manner, you’d never be able to get those efficiencies. Apprenticeships are starting to play a key role as we expand out into our position as an employer-led apprenticeship provider."

Essentially, the message is clear - hungry and digitall savvy apprentices can make a big difference.

What is the UK apprenticeship levy?

By way of quick summary, it's worth touching on exactly what the apprenticeship levy is.

If you’re an employer in the UK with a pay bill over £3 million each year, you must pay the apprenticeship levy. Those companies that pay the levy can use the apprenticeship service to receive funds to spend on apprenticeships, as well as source and pay for training providers.

Every month, the Government provides a 10% top-up to apprenticeship funding these companies can use, and anything they spend above their allowance will be a co-investment with the Government, who will pay for the lion's share of extra training (90%).

Non-levy paying employers will also be able to use this so-called 'co-investment', with government paying for 90% of apprenticeship training.

The question is - will the levy be a long term factor in tackling the digital skills shortage or will it be written off as a tax or see training fall short? Certainly, Rentokil Initial is a beacon with Gregory telling me that apprentice-led teams in learning and development have won a number of external awards. He says, "That gives an overview of the calibre that we’ve managed to attract."

More power to them for doing so.

Ben Davis

Published 13 June, 2017 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is Editor at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester, England. You can contact him at ben.davis@econsultancy.com, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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