Cat HalsteadCrimson is a technology and recruitment company based in Birmingham which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Cat Halstead was appointed in 2019 to set up the degree apprenticeship programme and build the future talent pipeline for Crimson across the solutions business.

As a Microsoft Gold Partner, working with companies across higher education, home builders, housing associations, and local authorities, Crimson offers exciting opportunities for enthusiastic apprenticeship candidates from every background.

Tell me about your role at Crimson?

We started with a business problem - how to find the right talent to grow the business with the challenge of the UK digital skills gap. We already employed five apprentices, but it was clear that we needed to invest to maximise the benefits. My role was to design and implement a degree apprenticeship programme to grow and build our future talent pipeline - Crimson Academy.

When I joined Crimson, we employed 60 employees with five apprentices. Our workforce has just recently tipped over 100 employees and 22 of those are apprentices.

How important is putting together a diverse team?

Research is clear - you get more creativity, more innovation, and stronger revenues if you have a diverse workforce.  We examined the language we used in job adverts and posed simple questions. Do we need apprentices to be technical? Do they need a background in IT? The answer was ‘no’; we are looking for people with the right attitude, for keen learners and those with an interest in using tech to solve business problems. We are regularly reviewing our website to ensure it is inclusive.

The result of this focus has been more interest in our apprenticeship from women. So, now, we have 22 apprentices - with just over 30% female. We are moving in the right direction, but we recognise there is more work to do.

Aside from gender, we want diversity across the board, so we continue to challenge ourselves around recruitment. We are also interested in career changers - those who have started their careers but are looking to change sector who can bring valuable insight, knowledge and experience into our organisation.

Tell me about the apprenticeship scheme process?

We work very closely with Digital Native who are a tech apprenticeship provider dedicated exclusively to delivering bespoke tech apprenticeship also based in Birmingham. They offer a variety of tech focussed apprenticeship routes. Last year we offered Software Testing apprenticeships and Business Analyst apprenticeships. This year we are also offering Data Analyst apprenticeships to grow talent for our Data Insights team.

Regardless of the entry route - school leavers, graduates or career changers - we recognise that they all need support to achieve our end goal of a successful, well-rounded, tech professional. We assign all our apprentices a buddy, a mentor and a coach.  

A buddy is a year-two apprentice, offering support around the work/study balance, how to pull together a portfolio and the challenges they will face. The mentor is a ‘functional consultant’ acting as their professional role model. They can answer questions on projects such as ‘how should I approach this? What would you do?’ And we provide the pastoral care with monthly coaching sessions to provide an hour’s headspace with no hidden agenda; ‘tell me how you're feeling? What's working for you? What's not working for you? What do you want to talk or think about?’ Digital Native also provide a dedicated coach, whose focus is on technical competence. She challenges them to, ‘tell me what evidence you've found so far? What can we do to explore, to find more evidence?’ She's keeping them on track with their portfolio.

We also run a ‘knowledge academy’ with sessions once a month focussed on raising business awareness, covering key topics such as business change, building effective relationships, commercial awareness and time management. We have a mandatory reading list and the aim is to develop stronger emotional intelligence and a breadth of knowledge across a variety of topics.

On-the-job training is a key aspect of the apprenticeship scheme, of course, and our apprentices are assigned to work alongside our experienced consultants on client projects from their second month with Crimson.

Tell me about starting an apprenticeship in lockdown?

Before lockdown, we had planned a launch event to kick off our 2020 recruitment cycle, inviting potential candidates and parents to an information sharing event. Unfortunately, Covid-19 restrictions limited our plans. Instead, we remotely recorded the same information and shared it via YouTube and Facebook. Martin Stilgoe, Director at Digital Native, carried out initial screening and telephone interviews of over 100 candidates.

We conducted all of the interviews via Microsoft Teams and a member of Crimson Board joined each one. The selection process involved two Teams calls; the first was an informal ‘getting to know you’ chat, the second included a presentation by the candidate. And then we made offers. Making those calls during the pandemic - to give people positive news and an exciting future - was a joy!

We were unable to meet face to face with our 2020 cohort until lockdown restrictions were lifted - when we met them in our office for a two-week induction. In the meantime, we set up a WhatsApp group to connect them all and sent them a copy of ‘Mindset’ by Dr Carol Dweck to nurture their growth mindset.

How do awards change or reinforce your apprenticeships at Crimson?

We are proud of our Crimson Academy programme; winning the Regional Employer of the Year and nationally Highly Commended Employer of the year validates we are on the right track. We are focussed on continuous improvement and both Crimson and Digital Native regularly challenge ourselves asking ‘what can we do to improve?’

Is the Crimson culture helping to keep your retention rate high?

Crimson has a strong family culture which it works hard to maintain. Our entire organisation has a vested interest in the success of our apprentices, and it is evident. Our retention and success rate is 100%. Of our five original apprentices, two of them are now on the final year of their degree and adding real value to clients in the role of ‘dynamics consultants’.

Our MD and Founder, Rob Mallaband, was once an apprentice himself. One of the first things he said to me is ‘if you see a way you can add value don't wait to be asked, just do it’. This is such a lovely environment in which to learn and to grow.

When you start an apprenticeship scheme, is it from the viewpoint of future or existing skills gaps?

Crimson has a strong pipeline and a clear strategy to grow, which creates potential growth across the entire business. The majority of our 2019 cohort have already transitioned across to our Microsoft Dynamics 365 practice. Four months in with our 2020 cohort and we are starting to have conversations about where the apprentices see themselves in the organisation.

Two of them have already applied for internal vacancies to join our new Data Insights team. If data’s not your thing, then project management might be, or Microsoft’s Modern Workplace or .net and bespoke integration which requires an interest in coding. We have opportunities across the Microsoft stack of solutions.

We recognise raw talent, nurture our apprentices and give them the room to grow in a direction that feels right for them and us. We want their personalities and their uniqueness to remain intact.

Tell me about your success stories?

We have built an outreach programme with some schools around Birmingham to talk about careers and apprenticeships and typically, I’m talking to an IT class with mostly males with maybe one or two females.

Last year I asked the school careers adviser to ‘give me an open invite session for year 12-13’s?’ And for the first 20 minutes, no one showed up. Then in walked three nervous young women and I thought ‘perhaps they've got the wrong room’. They hadn't.

One of the girls had achieved an ‘A’ in IT GCSE and had really enjoyed it but sadly wasn’t encouraged to continue. She applied for an apprenticeship at Crimson, was successful and is currently thriving with us. This year she will support our recruitment drive, share her journey so far and hopefully encourage more young ladies to consider a career in tech.

What advice would you give someone thinking about an apprenticeship?

For employers I would ask them to consider the business problem and build their programme out from that. It can be daunting but start small, build upon it iteratively and keep an open mind throughout.

For aspiring apprentices - if you're thinking ‘I can't’ - just put a ‘yet’ at the end. I can't ‘yet’. So simple and yet so powerful as it opens you up to possibilities. Apprenticeships are not just for school leavers. They are for anyone who wants to make a change and start a new career.

For career changers who have already started a career in another sector, it takes a lot of courage, a healthy dose of growth mindset and often the ability to take a financial step backwards for a short period - but the future opportunities are there and so are the rewards.