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Pushing boundaries with apprenticeships and diversity: Interview with Christine Hodgson, chairman at Capgemini

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At IT and professional services giant Capgemini, half of the junior talent intake is made up of apprentices and a fifth are female. Christine Hodgson tells Mary Appleton about initiatives to reach out to young people and attract more girls into a traditionally male-dominated sector.

Progressing women at work

As executive chairman of €2 billion business Capgemini UK, part of Christine Hodgson’s mission is to champion the progress of women in a sector where just 17% of the workforce is female.

And as the national youth unemployment crisis continues, she is actively pushing the diversity agenda – not just to increase the number of girls aspiring to careers in technology but to create meaningful opportunities for young people from all backgrounds to experience the world of work.

“Many young people don’t know what it means to work in some sectors – we need to explain what all these jobs are,” she says. “It’s really hard to get that first foot on the jobs ladder. As employers, we need to help schools get young people ready for work.”

Hodgson herself is no stranger to success. After graduating from Loughborough University with a degree in finance, she began her career at accountants Coopers & Lybrand (now part of PwC). She then joined a client, Ronson, before moving to Capgemini as finance director of the UK and on to its global outsourcing business.

She spent 10 years in these roles before being made CEO of Technology Services Northwest Europe in 2009, then taking on the role of UK executive chairman in 2011.

Feeding the talent pipeline & championing women

Capgemini UK comprises 20% of the overall Capgemini group, which employs over 120,000 people – 9,000 of whom are based in the UK. The firm has three main service areas – consulting, technology and outsourcing.

“We are a people business. Without talent we are nothing,” says Hodgson. “If we don’t feed the organisation from the entry level upwards, we’ll soon wither and die.”

And while the availability of key skills in the fast-moving technology sector has become a familiar concern for business leaders in recent months, Hodgson is acting to ensure the organisation’s future talent pipeline is diverse.

She is backing apprenticeships and other initiatives to inspire young people into technology careers. Women currently make up just 13% of the UK’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) workforce.

Within Capgemini, females comprise 26% of employees, while in the upper echelons this is just 17%. Although this is up 3% from 2011, Hodgson acknowledges there’s still “a very long way to go”.

But in recognition of the benefits a diverse workforce can bring, Capgemini UK has set some specific gender diversity targets. They aim to increase the senior female headcount to 20% and the overall female headcount to 30% within five years.

She agrees the technology industry has historically struggled to attract young people, particularly girls. Although they now outperform boys in IT-related subjects such as ICT, maths and physics at 16+, there’s a high dropout rate among girls at A-level and university junctures, partly fuelled by the common perception that IT is masculine and ‘geeky’.

“Young girls think fashion or media is much more exciting than technology – we’ve got to change perceptions like that,” says Hodgson, explaining that Capgemini runs an after-school club for girls at a school in London to help demystify the world of work. “If they’re interested in fashion, we tell them about the work we do with fashion clients,” she says.

Schoolgirls are also regularly invited to attend the company’s internal women’s network, which Hodgson runs and champions.

“I invited Kathryn Parsons [founder of Decoded and winner of the Veuve Clicquot New Generation Award 2013] to speak at the last event,” she says. “The girls loved it. It’s a small thing but we try to infuse enthusiasm.”

However, Hodgson is pragmatic about the agenda and believes there will never be a 50/50 split between men and women in the IT profession.

“We expect people to work with clients Monday to Friday, which might mean being away from home, so a lot of women don’t want to do that for domestic reasons,” she says. “We try to be as flexible as possible but we are working on client projects with deadlines across different locations, which makes it difficult.

“With the best will in the world, I don’t think it will ever be equal – but we can work to improve the balance.”

Reaching out to schools

Another of Hodgson’s overarching aims is to boost the number of Capgemini’s interactions with schools, to make youngsters aware of the sector and give careers advice indirectly. She feels all employers have a duty to help open young people’s eyes about the world of work.

“There’s no way teachers can know about all the jobs that are available and the skills you need for them. Employers have a real responsibility to help,” she asserts. With a diverse mix of clients, the organisation works across many industries, which for Hodgson, makes it ‘uniquely placed’ to explain to young people what opportunities are available and what jobs involve.

The organisation has over 100 employees committed to the Education and Employers Taskforce-led ‘Inspiring the Future’ initiative, which sees volunteers from all sectors and professions going into state schools and colleges to talk about their jobs and sectors.

Hodgson recently taught a year 11 maths lesson. “I made it relevant to business – we talked about growth and profit margins and the students loved it,” she says. She is clear that she wants all the interactions Capgemini has within schools – 5,000 in the past 12 months – to make an impact. Hodgson hopes that if a young person has one meaningful interaction per term, that one good experience will encourage them to go to work.

Brand awareness is secondary. “It would be nice if they applied to work for us but we are more concerned with giving a lasting impression,” insists Hodgson. She asks schools to give feedback to ensure what the firm does is relevant. “The best demonstrator of success is that we keep getting invited back,” she adds.

Demystifying the world of work

Alongside Steve Holliday, CEO of National Grid, Hodgson is a member of the BITC talent and skills leadership team. She champions the Work Inspiration initiative – a national employer-led campaign that targets young people to make their first experience of the workplace more meaningful.

“Work experience has such a bad reputation in this country,” she says. “It shouldn’t just be about following someone around or making tea. Work Inspiration aims to give young people relevant exposure.”

At Capgemini, this means allowing students to work on real client issues, such as using social media effectively. “Young people can easily talk about that and they love it. They come in feeling terrified and leave walking three inches taller, thinking: ‘I want to go to work if that’s what work is’,” explains Hodgson.

Starting in 2009, Capgemini has completed more than 1,000 Work Inspiration placements. “We try to be as creative as possible,” she says.

At the heart of the campaign lies Big Conversations – a series of events which bring businesses and young people together to discuss meaningful issues about work. Since 2009, over 26 of these have been delivered nationwide, with Capgemini hosting the professional services event.

The next step is to engage the wider supply chain, which for Hodgson is critical given that SMEs comprise a large proportion of UK employers. “We can’t just rely on big employers to drive this,” she says. “Engaging our suppliers will hopefully help create a ripple effect.”

Moving beyond graduates - a job for life

Graduates have been and always will be a valuable source of talent for Capgemini but the firm has also transformed its entry routes in recent years, most noticeably with the introduction of apprenticeships. Hodgson says these have “really opened the eyes of the business”.

“Until about four years ago, firms like ours were very geared towards hiring graduates,” she explains. “While they’re still important, we’ve broadened our horizons.” Capgemini has led the sector in creating software development higher apprenticeships – launched in 2011 – to help produce the technologists of the future. Together with Aston University, the firm has developed two full-course degrees which are studied over five years.

These are the first sponsored degrees in the UK ICT sector to be taught and delivered almost entirely in the workplace rather than attending day release at university. Participants study the higher apprenticeship for two years, followed by three years study to achieve their BSc.

In March 2014, the first intake of 22 higher apprentices graduated from their higher apprenticeship in software development, the first step to gaining a BSc at Aston University in three years’ time. Hodgson explains that since the scheme began five years ago, the number of higher apprentices joining the business has increased year-on-year; Capgemini will have recruited 280 by the end of 2014.

Her enthusiasm around this is infectious. “We’ve come up with a course that means that by age 23, these people are well trained, marketable and have a degree,” she says. And it doesn’t end there – every apprentice is a full-time employee from day one. “There’s no cliff edge. I want to give them a career after the apprenticeship.”

This all comes as more than 20,000 new apprenticeships have been pledged by employers in the wake of National Apprenticeship Week, which for Hodgson signals a step change in the way vocational qualifications are perceived.

Apprenticeships - here to stay

“If you’re an employer choosing between a 23-year-old who has come out of university with two years’ work experience and another with five years’ work experience, which would you pick? There’s no comparison,” she says.

Hodgson anticipates employers and universities working more closely in the future. “It won’t be a case of choosing work or uni. People will go to work, get an apprenticeship, and their employer will be working with the university.”

Yet she believes there’s still some way to go before we see an end to the divide between vocational and academic learning. She explains: “I visited a school last year and no one had heard of the higher apprenticeship – even teachers.

So I sent an apprentice there to tell them what it’s like. It made me think: ‘Wow, there’s still so much to be done’.”

With university fees rocketing in recent years, Hodgson feels it’s time to educate society on the benefits of vocational education. “People are fearful of university for many reasons. We need to excite parents and teachers as well as young people, to show apprenticeships are a real equivalent to university. This is more than just a fashion – it’s here to stay,” she adds.

When Hodgson first proposed the idea with the board four years ago, there was scepticism around whether school leavers are ready to add value to an organisation.

But she is delighted that the model has proven itself and apprentices now comprise half of Capgemini’s junior talent intake (graduates make up the remainder).

“It’s a compelling proposition. You’re not just offering five years’ employment – it’s structured training, a degree and a salary. You’re helping them manage their careers,” she says.

From an organisational perspective, Hodgson also hopes that the higher apprenticeship will encourage loyalty. “If we engage people at 18, grow and develop them as apprentices, they could well stay with us longer than our graduates do.”

Tapping into disadvantaged young

In an attempt to reach out to youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds, Capgemini is also committed to Generation Talent, a BITC scheme that encourages employers to ensure 25% of their recruits are aged 16-24.

While this is still in its early stages, Hodgson is optimistic about results. “It’s great because it forces you to look outside your ‘traditional’ talent pool. We’ve had positive feedback from our recruitment teams,” she adds.

Hodgson would like to see work-readiness training introduced as a key part of the school curriculum. “A lot of people leave school with no knowledge of how to apply for a job, behave in interview, write a CV or present themselves – they’re just not taught that stuff.”

Rather than seeing employability skills as ‘a nice thing to do’, Hodgson suggests schools should integrate this into core learning time.

She also recognises the role of employers in giving structured feedback on why they reject candidates. “If we don’t give proper feedback, young people will simply keep making the same mistakes. We need to help them see where they are going wrong.”

To address this, Hodgson suggests that an online tool reaching millions – such as plotr – would be useful for employers. “You can only do so much physically,” she says.

Getting into growth mode

In a sector which anticipates that there will be 900,000 vacancies by 2015, growth is critical for Hodgson at Capgemini. “We want to be the partner of choice for public and private sector organisations. For us, it’s about creating business value for our clients and we need the very best talent to do this. That’s our mission,” she says.

Ultimately, Hodgson is less concerned about unearthing ‘work-ready’ talent and recognises the energy, innovation and fresh ideas that young people can bring. It is up to the employer, she argues, to develop leaders of the future.

“As long as they have a certain level of intelligence and enthusiasm, you can train young people in the skills that they need for the current market, continue adapting them and give them different opportunities.

“Keep work interesting for them and you will reap the benefits,” she concludes.

Christine's favourites

FAVOURITE BOOK: Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

FILM: Spy Game

SONG: Beautiful Night – Paul McCartney

GADGET: iPhone

LAST HOLIDAY: Beijing and the Forbidden City

Mary Appleton

By Mary Appleton

Changeboard

Mary is Changeboard's editor in chief.

Changeboard

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