Lois Simon, Softcat

Lois Simon is the Apprentice Lead and Learning and Development Executive at Softcat, an IT reseller and FTSE 250 company with 1500 employees and 44 current apprentices. From onboarding to remote working: here, she tells BCS how the company is supporting apprentices through such challenging times.

The coronavirus has had an unprecedented impact on business and the economy. Since early spring 2020, on government advice, schools, universities and most non-essential business have temporarily closed their doors; with students and employees alike sent to study and work from home.

With formal exams like GCSEs and A levels cancelled, many have been wondering what will happen to apprentices currently enrolled or due to start programmes when their companies have had to shut their premises. Lois Simon recently spoke to BCS about how Softcat are managing the changes.

How many digital apprentices does Softcat have and to what standard are they working?

‘Our apprenticeship programme has been in place for six years and has changed significantly in that time. We currently have 44 apprentices on the programme, the majority of whom (24) are on the IT Technical Salesperson Level 3 programme.’

Has the onboarding of apprentices been affected by the current situation?

‘Fortunately, no as our programme runs from September to September. We have 52 apprentices due for onboarding this year.’

"Recruitment is actually working nicely at the moment; we are doing well at finding apprentices because schools finished early and year 12/13 students have some extra time to look at what they want to do."

‘The spike in recruitment has been caused by students who know they do not want to go to university, so we are ahead of the game on recruitment.’

‘If the lockdown is lifted, we are anticipating our first graduate intake in July (Softcat also employs 200 graduates a year) and we will make use of virtual meetings, keeping in touch calls and lunches. We are hoping the lockdown will be relaxed, but if that isn’t the case, we will adjust accordingly.’

Have any of your processes for working with current apprentices changed?

‘I think for apprentices who were school leavers, the biggest change for them has been working from home as many have never done this before.

‘From the beginning, we thought about their IT set ups at home, access to devices, stable internet connections and so on. As this work was going on for the whole company, I made sure the apprentices were at the top of the list so they could make the transition as smoothly as possible.

‘The process took about a week and, alongside arranging the physical equipment, we talked to apprentices about their wellbeing; including managing time, working at home challenges and family expectations - for example, if they were caring for a relative, had parents working at home, or younger siblings being home schooled.

"We feel it is important to allow for family time as well as the workload and to make things a little less regimented; giving the flexibility and security that we do not expect them to be online for 9 hours a day."

‘For IT sales professional apprentices, cold calling is a difficult exercise in the current situation. We have pivoted from selling to supporting our customers and filling the time with other activities, such as learning about different technologies, vendors and IT priorities - in addition to the work they are given from the training provider. Our objective is that they keep busy and continue to gain knowledge whilst engaging with their customers and sharing the Softcat #here to help campaign.’

How are your apprentices getting on so far?

‘Things are looking positive; I have sent them all a survey and have regular one-to-ones and they seem to be working well. The routine and structure of the day are the biggest difficulties, but I emphasise the need to build structure and prioritise their work - challenging them to set tasks for themselves.

‘As a cohort, they would normally be spending time interacting socially. To keep this going online, they have set up a premier league, quizzes and other incentives to keep the interaction going between them. We are also talking to them about taking care of their mental health, taking exercise and all employees have access to Softcat’s mental health programme.’

What best practice have you implemented to manage or mentor apprentices remotely?

‘Virtual learning can be hard - plus, gaining interaction is more difficult as people often do not want to be the first one to speak when online. It is different from being face-to-face because you miss cues from other people. We have set expectations of what virtual learning should look like and all apprentices have a separate iPad to the device they use for work. Everyone is set up to use Microsoft Teams and has access to a camera and microphone during all training sessions.

"We have decreased groups of learners from 14 to eight, to provide a better experience and make it easier to manage in smaller groups. Engagement is crucial."

‘Our ground rules say that silence does not mean understanding, so everyone is expected to clarify and share their thoughts and ideas when called upon. Setting expectations early on is key: the apprentices know they are expected to talk and contribute.’

Tell me more about remote learning and how apprentices are getting on with it?

‘Remote learning is currently working well. Workshops that would have previously lasted a day have been changed to bitesize sessions, so they are not so intense - 90 minutes maximum two or three times a week to complete the learning.’

"We have received feedback that apprentices would like to do this more when things are back to ‘normal’ for their 20% off-the-job learning. Doing an hour and a half a day enables them to go back to the job and they can break up their learning throughout the day - we may continue bitesize learning moving forward."

How have communications between you and your apprenticeship training provider, Remit, changed?

‘Our account manager has been put on furlough, so we have been in contact with their manager instead. A relationship was there anyway, we speak weekly for an hour catch up, talk through what is going on now and in the future. Then we talk with development coaches separately to make sure everything is OK for when training sessions are due.

‘We are relying on Remit to supply us with the latest information and possible impacts of any guidance provided by the government. They are also supporting us and our apprentices by structuring bitesize sessions, booking training, sitting in on workshops and feeding back, which seems to be working well.’

What are the main points you are focusing on as an employer during these uncertain times?

‘Three main areas:

  • Mental health and well-being are particularly important currently.
  • Communication is key - checking in with apprentices on a regular basis, not just for work purposes but pastoral support as well.
  • Reducing the impact of the current uncertainty on the learning journey. Softcat haven’t currently furloughed any of our apprentices and we continue to ensure that they feel secure in the knowledge they are valued employees.’

Finally, as a result of your response to COVID-19, will you do anything differently moving forward in terms of training or supporting apprentices?

‘Bitesize learning has been very successful; this may reflect the school set up many apprentices are used to, with an hour of learning at a time. We were already very hands-on throughout the programme and that will continue. We have reviewed our apprentices’ KPIs as they cannot cold call and open new accounts now, but that will resume when things go back to normal.’

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About Softcat

Established in 1993, Softcat has expanded across nine offices in the UK. An IT solutions and services provider, its focus is on supporting business to business (B2B) customers in both the corporate and public sector. Softcat also acts a consultative partner to suit solutions to businesses across the globe, including the USA, Australia and Hong Kong.