Virgin Media O2’s Karen Handley: ‘There's no age barrier, it's about the skills, experience and motivations you can bring’

With returnerships growing in popularity, Karen Handley discusses the benefits of embracing older workers and outlines some of the common misconceptions

Credit: Stuart Bailey

Just one in a string of moves announced in the spring budget last month, chancellor Jeremy Hunt revealed plans to encourage older workers back to work with ‘returnerships’ – schemes aimed at improving existing skills-building initiatives to make them more approachable for older workers, giving them the knowledge and assistance they need to find a direct route back into the workforce.

It’s a tactic Karen Handley, head of future careers at Virgin Media O2, who oversees the end-to-end candidate journey as part of her daily job, deems a “great vehicle for helping people retrain”, with her organisation having already tried and tested such fully funded programmes with no age limits.

Having attracted many different people – more than 2,600 apprentices since 2008, to be specific – Handley details the advantages this apprenticeship model has brought to the organisation by diversifying the candidate pool, no matter the stage of their career.

Could you tell me a bit more about the role of ‘returnerships’ from your experience?

Karen Handley: Returnership initiatives came out as part of the spring budget and in our model too we want to level the playing field for everybody. When we advertise apprenticeships, for example, there are no maximum age restrictions, only the government-mandated minimum age requirement of 16.

We really want to make sure that everyone can come through, whether they are changing career or they've had a break. For example, we just had somebody doing an apprenticeship after taking a long career break because they wanted to look after their two children and then came back to work. They realised some of their skills were out of date, but undertaking an apprenticeship, [despite being] much older than the typical entry-level apprentice, meant they could come in and reskill, learning future-based skills.

What are the main advantages of introducing a returnership?

KH: The key one is probably that diversity piece, and I think opening it up to everybody and not being restrictive means that you're attracting lots of different people.

When I compare what I was doing at school to what I'm doing today, I think it's just being realistic that people sometimes want to change their career to keep their own motivation. For us, as long as we're getting that high-potential talent, there's no barrier around what age you are – it's about the skills, the experience and those motivations you can bring [more] than anything else.

We've also found from tracking engagement of our apprentice programme that the apprentices showed 93 per cent engagement rate, compared to the industry norm of about 75 per cent. So we're one of the highest engaged populations within Virgin Media O2. We also had 98 per cent of those survey respondents tell us they're proud to work with us. As a customer-facing organisation, you want people who are advocates, you want people who are engaged, [and that shows] the programme is really bringing in some great engagement.

What are the most common scepticisms associated with returnerships?

KH: Some of these have been prevalent for a number of years, which is a shame, but, from our research, seven in 10 people believe that apprenticeships are poorly paid and 60 per cent don't think they offer any job security. But in reality, at Virgin Media O2, our starting salaries are from £20,400 up to £30,000, and 100 per cent of our apprentices are actually offered permanent contracts. Our view is that if we're investing all that time and money in people, we want to grow certain skillsets and want to support them to be able to carry on in that role after the scheme and the qualifications are complete.

Some don't believe that there are apprenticeships in their fields; 47 per cent of people from our research don't believe there'll be apprenticeships for them. But actually, in our industry as a whole, there are about 700 types of apprenticeships you can tap into. We cover a large range, whether it's administration, project management, DevOps, cyber security, marketing, etc.

I think the other [scepticism] is that people assume apprenticeships are for people who perhaps don't have qualifications or people who may typically not have done as well at school. But then, we're finding that some people join an apprenticeship with lots of experience or they may have a degree already. We're seeing a real range where people may have done a particular type of degree, but then decided they wanted to specialise in, let's say, analytics, so they come and do an apprenticeship.

What should organisations consider before setting up their own returnships?

KH: A key consideration if you want to invest in and build your own talent is thinking about what is important to you, and then being open about how you attract and hire people will make a difference. So we've opened up part-time apprenticeships because we understand that some people may be carers, for example. This may impact certain ways of working and we do quite a lot around thinking about how to attract people into STEM roles. So it's just considering those things that as an employee are important.

For us, it's also really important to be transparent. So, for example, on our website, we share the starting salary, progression salary and the likely salary they land on post programme. When people are looking at an early career stage or if they're looking to reskill, they probably want to know how this is going to compare with their salary today. So the more transparent you can be about what the programme is, what it isn't and those ‘key pieces’, the better.

Do you expect returnerships to evolve in the near future and can we expect them to attract more interest from both sides?

KH: From our research, three in four people are familiar with apprenticeships, but a quarter of people still don't really know a lot about them. So I think there’s still a conversation around probably what apprenticeships mean to people, and a journey around [understanding] what apprenticeships are. But we do know from our research that 49 per cent have said they are interested in studying for a qualification.

I think more people will probably want to retrain as skills evolve, so I would definitely say there will be more employers talking about widening their reach on apprenticeships. And with returnerships becoming a formal offering, so to speak, I think there'll be growth in that space.