An alternative source of talent for your service desk?

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Due to the advances in healthcare and longer life expectancy it is estimated that within 15 years of the date of this article almost a third of the UK workforce will be in the over 50-age bracket.

Do you have an apprentice working in your IT department? Perhaps on your Service Desk learning the ropes, planning their rise through the ranks to Database Administrator or Network Engineer? I of course am generalizing and there may well be many apprentices out there wanting to pursue a career purely as a Service Desk Analyst it’s just that I have never met one.

I did however once meet a man called Paul who started working with me, not in IT admittedly, but who, having been made redundant and failing for over 18 months to procure a similar role, decided to apply for an entry level position in a very different sector to one he had worked in before. Paul was 58 years old.

The Office of National Statistics estimates that in July of this year approximately 325,000 people in the UK age between 50-64 were unemployed. Although this is thought to be about half of the number of unemployed 16-24 year olds, the prospects for the 50+ demographic finding long-term employment are considerably bleaker with almost 50% of those over 50’s having been unemployed for one year or more or forced into underemployment working part-time or to zero hour contracts.

Paul was extremely able, had an excellent manner and was very patient with the callers on the end of the line. His customer service skills were exemplary and in contrast to others, including myself at the time, he did not see the role as a rung on a ladder to somewhere else. He just wanted to help people and do the job to the best of his ability.

Looking back I can see that Paul would have made an excellent Service Desk Analyst. I very much doubt though that at the time, when this particular IT Department contained only one person over the age of 50 who was widely regarded by his colleagues as a dinosaur treading water until retirement, that Paul would ever have been considered.

Despite possessing a healthy interest in IT and possessing good IT skills, pretty much all that can be hoped for when attempting to employ an apprentice, the suggestion that Paul could take on the apprentice role would have no doubt received much laughter.

Luckily things are changing…

Although traditionally apprenticeships have been for young people fresh from education, the 50+ demographic is moving in. In the last year more than 34,000 people over the age of 50 have started an apprenticeship, with many applying for a ‘professional’ apprenticeship in areas that would normally be dominated by graduates.

Please don’t get me wrong, I wholeheartedly support helping young people into work, my own working life started out this way and I am forever grateful for the opportunity but I think that organisations are missing a trick!

I believe that this older age group is an excellent fit for the Service Desk. With more decision-making and problem solving experience older workers already have a lot of the skills that would need to be taught to a young person alongside technical skills. And then there’s the general life experience aspect. Website Customer Champions carried out a survey on below average customer service and found that people over 50 are the most dissatisfied. It stands to reason that if you have received poor customer service you will work hard to ensure that your customers do not receive a similar service.

Opening up apprenticeships to the 50+ demographic also helps to create a larger pool of suitable candidates, something which in my experience is greatly needed and, as I previously mentioned, with older workers more likely to see working on the service desk as a career rather than a stepping-stone to other things your return on your investment will be far higher.

So do yourself a favour when looking for an apprentice and actively encourage applications from the over 50’s…they have a lot to offer

Types of apprenticeships

Currently in the UK there are over 200 different types of apprenticeships in areas such as retail, education, manufacturing, engineering and of course Information and Communication Technology.

Specific ICT Apprenticeships:

  • IT Application Specialist – providing apprentices with the competence, skills and knowledge to work effectively and efficiently with IT systems, communication and productivity tools and software applications
  • IT, Software, Web and Telecoms Professionals – with the choice of focusing on either telecoms or IT this apprenticeship covers work in a broad range of digital technologies that help to use and share information.

Less obvious apprenticeships that may also be considered by an IT organisation:

  • Customer Service – teaching the apprentice the skills to provide excellent customer service as a customer facing employee
  • Contact Centre Operations – providing the apprentice skills in customer service, communication, problem solving and team working

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Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA) Quick Guide

I know, it actually sounds like something they used to show early in the morning when I was growing up as part of an adult learning initiative, long before children’s television schedules took off.

The first I heard of it was at the itSMF Regional Seminar in Staines, as part of the “speed-dating” networking sessions, as Matthew Burrows had just finished writing the pocket book.

Before chatting to him further on the subject, I took a browse through the website, where I spent a while trying to understand just what it actually means.

SFIA in a nutshell

The idea is to give employers a common terminology framework around a set of generic business skills, and seven defined areas of responsibility, starting with entry level (Level 1) and taking you up to Level 7 where you would expect someone to be defining strategy and mobilising organisations to achieve business goals.

7

Set strategy, Inspire, Mobilise

6

Initiate/Influence

5

Ensure/Advise

4

Enable

3

Apply

2

Assist

1

Follow

This approach makes it quite straightforward to understand, as most people can typically follow the concept of an experience curve.

Some surprises

The biggest surprise for me was that this framework has been around for a long time.

Matthew explained:

“I started using it nearly 11 years ago for an organisation redesign project.

“I discovered SFIA, rather than invent something new, and found it really useful.”

He sees himself as a practitioner (indeed, he is one of the SFIA Accredited Consultants) and has been using it ever since.

Going through the material, I began to recognise skill profiles that I used to have to annually update in one of my previous companies, who have representatives on the SFIA Council and have chosen to adapt and adopt the framework.

Access to the materials

As with many things, there are no two ways about it, you have to register, but it is free to do so.

Once you register you are taken immediately to all the materials, without having to wait for a confirmation email.

  • A3 Size Summary Chart
  • Complete Reference Guide
  • Working With SFIA Guide
  • PDF detailing the changes between V4/4G and V5 (latest)
  • Skills Reminder Card
  • Skills in a spreadsheet form

The skills and descriptions in the Reference Guide are the most valuable resource – the generic description of the skills, and the specific descriptions for the various levels.

How it helps professionals & organisations

  • Recruitment/CV Development

Recruiters these days find the few, rather than attract the many, and you might be more likely to see jobs advertised that use the same language.

Matthew said:

“I saw one [job] the other day which mentioned the specific skill and specific level, right in the headline of the job.

“The more recruitment consultants use SFIA, the more intelligent their matching becomes because if they can educate their customer (who is specifying the role), or if the customer is already aware of SFIA, they can list a couple of core skills”

Using the specific descriptions, matched with the skill level in CVs could help professionals become one of the few.

  • Continual Professional Development & Mentoring

The progression through the levels of responsibility can be charted within disciplines (for example Project Management – starting with leading a single project and progressing to managing a number of projects, or managing project managers.

Training companies have started using SFIA to describe their training offerings, showing where the course is designed to provide which skill and which level.

Mentoring works in exactly in the same way – if you want to get to a certain level, use the SFIA framework to find a mentor with a skill at a particular level.

  • Organisational Skills Planning and (Re)Design

From a company point of view, they can baseline their current skills, and forecast what skills are going to be required, and do a gap analysis between the two, using that to define training and recruitment plans.

It can help in providing informed decisions around restricting and reorganisation.  If a couple is looking to outsource some activity, then assessing those skill needs and gaps can help.

Pitfalls

SFIA only provides you with definitions of professional skills.

It does not describe behavioural skills or specific technical knowledge.

Think of it as helping you put the self-promotional phrases that are all important in CVs and at appraisal time, backed up with specific technical qualifications and those all important softer skills that make someone a rounded professional.

Matthew warned against putting too much faith in the categories and subcategories:

“The categories and sub-categories are just convenient labels.  Don’t read too much into them.

“Service Management doesn’t include all the skills associates with Service Management, so if you were defining a process ownership role, you would find they would have some of the skills in the Service Management category, and some of the skills in the Strategy and Architecture category, so I find the skill names are really useful.”

Who makes it happen and where to find out more

The SFIA Foundation is a non-profit organisation.

There are five Foundation members who fund the Foundation, produce the material and make it available for people:

  • itSMF UK (The IT Service Management Forum)
  • IET (The Institute of Engineering and Technology)
  • e-skills UK (Sector Skills Council for Business and Information Technology)
  • IMIS (The Institute for the Management of Information Systems)
  • BCS (The Chartered Institute for IT)

Each of these organisations has a member on the SFIA Board, and in addition there is an SFIA council with other members from companies and corporations who use SFIA.

Funding comes in from the Foundation members, and from Accredited SFIA Consultants who pay a percentage of their fee to the central pot.

To register for SFIA materials, and to find out more, visit the SFIA Website.