Centrica, the parent company of UK utility supplier British Gas, has signed a number of high profile IT infrastructure outsourcing contracts in recent months. These include a £240 million data centre hosting deal with Hewlett Packard and a contract with Fujitsu to manage 250,000 desktops.
But while it is clearly happy to hand infrastructure management over to third parties, Centrica prefers to develop and manage its business-critical applications in house.
For example, the company is in the process of standardising its various CRM applications on a single SAP platform, and the transformation programme is going on within the organisation.
It often uses contract staff to do that internal work, however, in part due to a shortage of the relevant skills on the employment market
This situation is far from ideal, explains human resources manager Mark Stoddart, as it means that people with important knowledge about its IT systems are not committed to the organisation. “It’s really important that people with key knowledge of the systems are employed by the business and are committed to being with the organisation on the long term,” he says.
It was this concern that prompted British Gas to review its IT staff sourcing strategy last year. “We looked at how we could put more focus on the people within our business rather than constantly looking to the external market,” recalls Stoddart.
That led logically to the idea of running an apprenticeship scheme. British Gas has offered apprenticeships in engineering for many years, but had not done so in the information services (IS) department.
The primary driver for scheme was the desire to nurture people with the desired knowledge that hopefully will have some loyalty to the company, says Stoddart, but there is also a short-term motivation for cultivating more in house resources. “It’s very expensive when you’re buying a lot of external resource, particularly if you have a large number of suppliers.”
British Gas is offering 30 apprenticeships to school leavers this year. Successful candidates will spend two years with the company, during which time they will receive payment, training and hands-on experience on a number of different IT projects.
The company has invested £2 million in the apprenticeship scheme. In time it will receive financial support from the government for doing so, but exactly how much depends on which candidates are successful. The government’s IT skills development agency e-skills worked with the British Gas to develop the content of its training scheme.
Currently, British Gas is in the process of recruiting and assessing applicants. Stoddart says it is particularly keen to find candidates who, as well as a keen interest in technology, show aptitude in leadership and communication.
“In the past, we’ve had a very technology-led IS function, but I don’t think that will be the case in the future,” he explains. “Going forward, we’re going to need IS staff with team building skills and commercial awareness as well as technical competence.”
These softer skills are also encouraged by the training programme on offer. For example, the apprentices will spend their first week at an ‘outward bound’ facility in Wales. “We want them to feel part of a bigger team, and it gives them a great opportunity to get to know each other.”
The apprenticeships are also linked to the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme, which allows British Gas to “assess the individual in the round”, Stoddart says.
Stoddart believes the scheme is well timed, as changes to university funding mean more school leavers are looking for alternatives to undergraduate study. “I was speaking to the head of sixth form at a school recently, and she told me there’s been a real shift,” he says. “She told me apprenticeships are really attractive to students who would typically have gone to university but are now actively looking for other options because university fees are going up so much.”
He encourages other business to follow British Gas’ lead. “There's a huge opportunity here for companies to start growing their own talent again.”