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My dad used to work on a building site, and to spice up his day, he and his mates would send the apprentices on fool’s errands. Much to his delight, young apprentices would be eagerly go out looking for glass hammers and tartan paint.

Historically, apprenticeships had a bit of a bad reputation in some sectors, but following National Apprenticeship Week<https://www.gov.uk/government/topical-events/national-apprenticeship-week-2015> we are reminded of just how valuable they can be as a mechanism to develop young talent. Their purpose is to help people at an early stage of their career receive on-the-job training, real life work experience, all the benefits of development, and of course a salary. It’s an attractive option to many young people, particularly given the cost and competition for university places.

It got me thinking about my own career path, and how I have actually taken advantage of what is an unofficial apprentice program. I left school at 16, and after working as a labourer, wardrobe fitter and a furniture delivery driver, I applied for a job in a call centre. It wasn’t with any pre-defined career objective initially, but that’s where it started.

After a couple of years on the front line with the phones, I became a team leader and was relocated to a back office function as a manager. From there I became involved in planning, through forecasting, scheduling, and managing a planning team. Eventually I left the call centre and became a trainer and consultant for a WFM vendor, and on to a strategic consultant. That’s a long way from my days trying to squeeze a two seater chesterfield sofa up a flight of stairs to a flat in Croydon! But it all started with the initial introduction to the industry.

My journey isn’t unique though, I can think of two of my best friends who were on the phones with me, who have now gone on to other great things. One is now an HR director for an airline, and the other a lead project manager across EMEA for a call centre software provider. I know many others who have gone on to marketing careers, hotel contracting, customer service managers and many more. The common element is the grounding of working on the front line, on the phones, in a contact centre environment. The skills we developed at that young age have proven vital to us all, regardless of the sector or industry we find ourselves in today.

To reinforce that, as part of my current role I run regular best practice workshops, attended by contact centre professionals. Usually, as part of my introduction I will ask the audience how many of them started their careers on the phones. Now I know this is anecdotal, but I have run these kind of events for many years, and every time I ask a room full of senior contact centre professionals, the response is always in excess of 80%.

For years now, contact centres have been developing talent and providing the foundation of many careers. It’s time to start spreading the word! I asked both my teenage children if during their school time a call centre was ever suggested as a job option. The answer was no. My eldest son now works in a school and says that when discussing careers with teenagers, it’s very much exam focussed. Consequentially, many of the career options discussed are influenced by the requirement to have certain grades. It is important that apprentice programmes in industries like the contact centre are given a higher profile.

If you objectively assess an apprentice program, the kind of things you would look for would be:

·         Initial comprehensive training program

·         Side by side mentoring

·         Regular performance review and assessments

·         Ongoing access to additional training

·         Reward and recognition process

·         Opportunities for further career development

All of these things are common place when you join a contact centre. Many contact centre operations will look to recruit on aptitude, with some psychometric testing and assessment days, looking beyond the academic and focussing on core skills.

Once employed in a call centre, there is an understanding of skills management and development. There is also the ability to objectively collect performance data, and have internal coaching to achieve better performance. Rewarding and recognising good performance through incentives and fast career progression.

In many organisations, rightly or wrongly the call centre is also seen as a resource pool for the rest of the business too. While it drives the planners mad, it allows agents to gain exposure to other areas of the business. From this, operatives can discover new opportunities and access the wider business, positioning themselves as key players for managerial positions.

With the wide range of verticals that operate contact centres, from financial services, telcos, the travel industry and almost anything in between, school leavers or university graduates, whatever their interest, have a way in to a chosen profession. There is also a plethora of standardised apprenticeship programmes out there, in fact 20% of all school leavers<http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcthree/item/13a9c162-3e94-4d75-90e7-b5b34a8cddd1> today will enter one. It’s important that we keep the contact centre industry front of mind for young people entering the job market, and engage with them on the potential career opportunities it could open.

By Graeme Gabriel, Strategic Workforce Optimisation Consultant, Verint

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