Race Equality Awards 2017-Optimity: Home Grown Talent

Three years ago, Optimity’s business model changed from supplying IT and telecom services to providing broadband services using a pioneering technology called Wibre. This drove rapid growth in the business and meant there was a need to recruit. However, the organisation struggled to find candidates with the skills needed to deploy the new technology. Optimity also recognised that whilst the tech sector was booming in East London, it was not benefiting the local community, which was suffering from high levels of youth unemployment.

In 2015, Optimity started a social enterprise called Tech Up Nation, which aimed to identify and recruit local young people and develop the skills they needed for a successful career in the tech sector. The organisation particularly wanted to recruit local young people who had not been successful in school and lacked the qualifications to go to university. By focusing on the ethnic diversity of the local area, Optimity was able to attract groups who lacked routes into the tech sector.

A dedicated team was tasked with approaching schools, colleges and community groups to identify and engage with talented young people who wanted a technology career. The team also approached local employers to provide apprenticeship placements and allow the candidates to attend college weekly.

Apprenticeship candidates underwent a ‘re-boot camp’ for 12 weeks to prepare them for their placements and provide an initial base for study prior to joining the workforce as an apprentice. Once the placement began apprentices had regular mentoring sessions with a dedicated case worker and twice-weekly lessons at college. The syllabus was set by the employers and the apprentices learnt current and valid topics relevant to the technology sector.

There was a particular focus on the selection process. The majority of candidates lacked CVs, had little or no prior experience and often had poor track records at school, meaning conventional recruitment tools would have been unsuccessful, potentially eliminating talented candidates. As a result, more informal approaches were used, such as Optimity team members facilitating group tasks to identify candidates as part of the ‘reboot-camp’. Mock interview training was also provided to measure candidates’ communication skills, using Optimity’s standard interview strategy of involving a wide number of people to make a final recruitment decision. This involves different people having an equal say in hiring decisions, regardless of seniority.

Through the programme, Optimity has recruited some outstanding candidates who have already demonstrated huge potential. The vast majority of candidates are from BAME backgrounds due to the organisation’s focus on the local community to find individuals with the ambition and attitude for a successful career in the tech sector.

The transformational journey that Optimity apprentices have taken has resulted in a number of awards. For example, Shah Alam won The Mayor’s Fund for London Apprentice of the Year Award in 2015. Shah had a particularly challenging childhood that meant that he was his family’s breadwinner at a very early age. This had an impact on his performance at school, making starting a career very challenging. The programme has enabled him to start a successful career and Shah is a great ambassador for the impact apprenticeships can make regardless of background.

The vast majority of apprentices are recruited to full-time permanent roles at the end of their apprenticeships. One apprenticeship graduate, Ali Hussain, transitioned into becoming a full-time member of staff for 24 months before spreading his wings and joining another organisation in a similar role. He has recently decided to return and is now a senior member of the team.

Optimity’s current cohort of apprentices and graduates is 60% BAME, representing 15% of the total workforce. The programme has started meaningful, long-term careers for a number of local young people from BAME groups, who would have otherwise remained in zero-hours, minimum wage work at best. Optimity has successfully broken a cycle using the tech sector’s huge need for talent as an incentive. At the same time, by encouraging other tech organisations to follow its example, the organisation is working to break the stereotype of a tech worker and encourage the sector to embrace broad ethnic diversity in their workforce.