Shaping a digital future – part five

Case Study: Blue Array

Blue Array, a Reading-based search engine optimisation (SEO) consulgency (consultancy and agency hybrid) is one of many businesses that took the leap to hire an apprentice to help get their digital skillset up to scratch. They worked with training provider 3aaa to find the right match for them. SME caught up with Simon Schnieders, founder of Blue Array, to find out more…

• Have you previously had difficulty recruiting technology-savvy staff?

It’s a real struggle to find digital talent particularly in the field of SEO. It’s a subjective area that’s been through a number of seismic transitions lately as search engines have algorithmically matured. A few years ago the knowledge needed to be successful at SEO was fairly limited. Today’s SEO needs deep expertise in many different areas.

• Why did you decide to hire an apprentice?

Given the skills gap I needed to fill with the current pool of candidates I reasoned that the difference between those hires and starting with an apprentice was small enough to take the small leap of faith into new territory.

• What was the hiring process?

I used a three-step process. Initially I briefed 3aaa on the ideal candidate shape, the basic building blocks I was looking for and they put forward CVs. Then a Skype call was arranged, typically to test the candidate’s level of communication and get a feel for what strengths could be built upon and what weaknesses were clear and needed a plan around.

Provided the initial Skype call went well then a face-to-face was arranged.

If the face-to-face went well then a time-framed task (usually a simple task to write eg 300 words on what is SEO) was set. This primarily is done to test the ability of the candidate to meet a deadline.

• What has been the biggest contribution your apprentice/s has made to the company so far?

One apprentice has already saved the company money by implementing a cloud-based crawling technology with existing tools where new tools would have cost significantly more (thousands of pounds in savings per annum).

• Do you think apprenticeships are a good solution to bridging the digital skills gap we are currently facing?

I’m a huge advocate of the apprenticeship scheme for bridging the digital skills gap and growing our young talent rather than some of the short-sighted answers companies are looking for such as relaxing visa restrictions for tech employees from abroad.

• Do you think the government is doing enough to promote apprenticeships?

The apprenticeship scheme might need a rebranding and rewording to accurately reflect what a modern apprenticeship actually means to employers.

• What would be your top tips for a small business looking to hire an apprentice?

Hire with a view to training and growing that individual over a 12 month period. If you’re expecting the apprentice to bring a skill set to the business you may be disappointed. Therefore, look for the character traits, the basic building blocks you think the candidate will need. One apprentice I hired couldn’t maintain eye contact with me for more than a few seconds but the basic building blocks of character I needed were present. Two months later his eye contact is fixed and confident. It’s little things like that that make the whole process very fulfilling but need to be noted as an area to improve, not to dismiss the candidate.

Secondly, treat your apprentices well, just as you would any other employee. I give my hires early Friday finishes, free gym membership, access to free fresh fruit and the best equipment and tools at their disposal. You may be their first experience of a work environment and they’ll appreciate the gesture as well as being treated like adults. If you’re respectful and patient, you’ll get the same in return.

Thirdly give regular reviews and feedback; I review apprentices with a one-hour sit down monthly, without fail. I make sure that anything that’s said negatively or highlighted as an area to improve on is always balanced with something positive so the apprentice is never left feeling disheartened.