Interviews

Allstate NI: Education and bridging the digital skills gap

  • Sync NI chatted with Allstate NI’s John Healy and Paul Cassidy about the organisation’s onboarding and upskilling through the coronavirus crisis, and their thoughts on how Northern Ireland can address the ongoing digital skills gap in the future

    200 people have been onboarded by Allstate Northern Ireland throughout the pandemic, with 45 coming through the Early Careers programme. 

    It is a mixture of graduates, apprentices and higher-level apprentices. 

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    “We connect with the universities and further education colleges such as Belfast Met,” said Paul Cassidy, Global Senior Learning Manager who himself joined the company remotely during lockdown last year. 

    He added that “Employees that join our early careers programme receive a six-month targeted onboarding programme, which is a mixture of focused technical skilling and business integration.”

    Skills: What is NI doing right?

    This acceleration in technology training and ambitions for an advancement in digital skills is a focal point in what Economy Minister Diane Dodds believes will help kickstart the economy post-pandemic.

    Speaking during a recent debate in the Assembly on her Skills Strategy, she told MLAs that it has “a key role to play in addressing not only the short term challenges arising as a consequence of Covid-19, but also in addressing the long term weaknesses within our economy.

    “Our economy is changing very quickly, with automation and digitisation transforming the workplace. It is essential that employers and individuals recognise the need to invest time and money in people.”

    John Healy, Allstate NI’s Managing Director wholeheartedly agrees with this sentiment and delved into it further with Sync NI.

    “I think the kind of standout advantage that Northern Ireland has is that we are small enough in terms of being able to get together and talk about the issues, and yet we're still big enough that the powers that be, want to listen to us,” he said.

    “That combination means that we can actually get things done. We get together like a sectoral partnership where employers sit down with the universities, colleges and government and talk about what they see as the demands and where the stresses are common, and we get that opportunity to effect change.

    “I think that is really powerful in terms of being able to influence right from the get-go.

    “We've been seen over the last 12 months to be as resilient as we have been, and as we come out of this, you have the Economy Minister Diane Dodds, talking about how technology will be central to the recovery and that's a great place for us.

    “Now, the flipside is that we're not moving fast enough, we haven't got enough people coming in at the bottom and you hear Paul talking about the 60 people that we're bringing in.

    “That's a huge number, and it’s a huge number because there's such great opportunity for the sector in Northern Ireland. So, we need to continue on all of the good work that has been done and get more capacity into the system.” 

    Upskilling & Re-Skilling

    Paul pointed out that “one of the things Allstate is absolutely superb at, and will only continue to get better at, is our development opportunities around upskilling and re-skilling targeting critical skills.” 

    350+ employees globally last year availed of such opportunities within the organisation. 

    “It's about the willingness, it's about the aptitude, it's about the commitment,” Paul went on. “We see our programmes oversubscribed, employees are keen and willing to develop and gain huge benefits in key areas.

    “In 2020 close to 100 people in Allstate NI re-skilled and upskilled enhancing their performance and growing their career in areas such as full stack engineering, which is phenomenal.

    “We also have superb programmes which give people a different opportunity, such as Evolve. Evolve focuses on developing future technical leadership capability, building a great talent pipeline supporting diverse career opportunities.” 

    Having a particular skill is fantastic in Allstate’s perspective, but its internal programmes are designed to expand the breadth of those skills across different areas.

    Paul added that the diversity focus within the firm “is one of the biggest things” he’s proud of, with females making up 30% of Evolve nominees. “We are focusing on supporting diversity throughout all our programmes year on year, while also focusing on attracting talent into the organisation which is fantastic,” he commented.

    Attracting back the NI diaspora 

    As well as internal programmes, Allstate NI is running many external initiatives too, in which they try to attract back into the tech sector people who have dropped out of it.

    The Returners programme attracted an equal number of men and women “who had stepped out of the technology world and who wanted to get back in again but were completely daunted by the changes in tech” John explained.

    “Technology moves so fast and they were concerned that with a couple of years out, would their skills still be relevant?

    “It's not just about entry level people, it’s about those mid-career as well, and getting them back into the workplace.”

    John also hopes that in a post-Covid world, people will see the benefits of having more space or easy access to Northern Ireland’s scenic surroundings, and those who maybe once left to build their careers in the likes of London or other big cities will come back to Northern Ireland and develop tech leadership positions.

    “Maybe those people are now seeing the limitations of living in a small apartment and having to travel to their place of work by tube, and we should really think about how we can tap into that Northern Ireland diaspora.”

    Creativity & Curiosity 

    Paul said that a phrase he uses a lot when encouraging young people into the tech sector, or when chatting to parents of A-level students at organised events around careers, is ‘creativity and curiosity’. 

    “People believe there’s this barrier or list of requirements that you need to have, and actually you can just strip it right back to those couple of things,” he continued. 

    “Be innovative and challenge your thinking. If you've got those types of characteristics you can apply them to any industry, and I would encourage people to explore the actual plethora of opportunities that are in IT and tech. It's one of the largest sectors in Northern Ireland and is constantly growing.”

    John echoed this, saying “there's never been a better time to experiment and to exercise some of that curiosity.”

    “You can go out and get yourself a cheap piece of hardware; something like a Raspberry Pi and play around with it while learning some programming.

    “To encourage any young person that is thinking about a career in technology, I would say start exploring tech to exercise that curiosity gene and see whether or not it is for you. We put a lot of effort into schools in terms of encouraging computer science and there’s all sorts of research that states the potential lifetime earnings of somebody with a computer science degree is pretty high, but computers aren't for everybody.

    “You should only do it if you actually have an interest. Go and play around and seek guidance from people who are in those roles. There are plenty of ways to engage with the sector and as the sector, we’re very keen to engage with you. There are plenty of materials out there for people to see what it actually means to be in this buoyant sector.”

    Find out more about Allstate NI’s various opportunities here.

    This article first appeared in the Spring 2021 edition of the Sync NI magazine. You can download your FREE copy and sign up to recieve future digital editions here

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