While digital technology is disrupting almost every industry, issues such as gender pay, social mobility and corporate trust are driving companies to rethink the way in which they engage with employees.
For technical companies like bp, there’s an additional challenge: how to reflect the society in which they operate in the face of a systemic science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills gaps that disproportionately affects women and ethnic minorities; a gap that is set to widen as the fourth industrial revolution picks up pace.
bp has a long history of tackling this issue, establishing the bp Educational Service (BPES) back in 1968 to create teaching resources that help STEM teachers relate classroom study back to real-world issues. Five decades on, those resources are now grounded in a major bp-supported research programme, led by University College London, King’s College London and the Science Museum Group, called Enterprising Science.
Conducted over a five-year period, the programme identified a distinct relationship between a student’s ‘science capital’ and their future aspirations in STEM subjects – put simply, the higher the science capital, the more likely a STEM career.
The concept is starting to spread through the UK education community and its influence can be felt across a host of related initiatives, such as Project ENTHUSE, Aspire to STEM and the Science Museum Group Academy ‘Science Capital in Practice’ programme.
Increasingly, it also underpins the activities that bp supports at its UK offices, such as its annual STEM festival – celebrating student work carried out in one of two bp-supported engineering challenges, designed by the Engineering Development Trust (EDT) – and its sponsorship of Scotland’s TechFest.
“One of our best examples of science capital in action is the bp Ultimate STEM Challenge,” says Ian Duffy, bp head of UK communications and community development. “It encourages young people to set up STEM clubs to solve open-ended creative problems, which is so important in aspiring to STEM careers.”
Ian Duffy, head of UK communications and community development, bp
bp’s programmes target a range of age groups, from as young as 10 all the way to university level. And for good reason.
“A lot of research shows that children start to shift from unrealistic career aspirations – like pop star or footballer – at about the age of 10,” says Natasha Barley, director of Hull and EY Children’s University, a Hull-based charity that bp works with to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds raise their career aspirations.
However, by about the age of 14, children – and disproportionately girls – have started shutting down options, telling themselves they’re ‘not a science person’.
Challenging that perception is critical and why, says Barley, role models are the key to success. Meeting people that look and talk like them “makes STEM tangible for young people,” she explains.
The encounters also help them understand the breadth of STEM career paths available. Most children get their careers advice from their school or their parents, both of which wield enormous influence. “A lot of careers advisers haven’t worked in industry, so when a girl says I want to be a software engineer they don’t know what advice to give on subjects to study,” says Kirsty Clode, chair of Women into Manufacturing and Engineering (WiME).
This is something Beth Marshall knows all too well. Now HR manager for bp's UK petrochemicals business, Marshall wanted to be a mechanic, but was told “that wasn’t what girls do. I was told to work in a travel agency. So, I did, because I didn’t know any better.”
It’s stories like this that make places like Hull’s Ron Dearing university technical college (UTC) so important. The UTC takes children from 14 and gives them the chance to study engineering and digital sciences, alongside maths and English.
“In the next decade the Humber region is going to face a shortage of around 220,000 engineers,” says Marshall. “We need to encourage the other half of our population to consider STEM careers, so we’re working with Ron Dearing to shift perceptions and help improve female representation.”
What is also increasingly clear is that where a child is born has a profound impact on their career prospects, with regional disparities in the UK now wider than any other western European country. And without the ability to encounter different sorts of employers, a child’s risk of becoming a NEET (not in education, employment or training) rises.
“You can’t be what you don’t know,” says Anne Spackman, chief executive of Career Ready, a bp-supported charity providing young people from disadvantaged backgrounds with mentoring and coaching opportunities.
“Our students rarely get the chance to meet people in professional roles, so when they come to a bp office, they’re staggered that they’re allowed to belong to this world. That’s a huge confidence boost, it tells them they have value.”
Suzy Style, bp downstream talent acquisition manager, agrees: “I’ve had young women come up to me at some of our female discovery days and tell me that they had no idea bp recruited people like them and they don’t just mean because they’re female, but because of their background.”
Anne Spackman, chief executive, Career Ready
Encounters with employers is one of eight Gatsby Career Benchmarks identified by Professor Sir John Holman as part of an international study on career guidance, which now form the basis of a bp-supported programme to target school, college and careers leaders responsible for schools strategy, called Future Talent ED.
It’s also a big part of why bp creates so many opportunities for its employees to meet young people. And the impact is two-way, says Duffy: “The experience of running a workshop or providing long-term mentoring gives our people a real sense of pride.”
But education is only one side of the skills gap coin. In order to truly reflect the society in which it operates, bp is also changing its approach to early careers recruitment. The traditional university graduate is still a key part of bp's strategy but, says Siobhan Rogan, bp early careers lead, not everyone wants, or can afford, to go to university, “so we’re really trying to challenge ourselves to broaden our pool.”
To do that, bp is in the process of adjusting its application processes, widening its definitions of experience to include activities like volunteering. “It’s about looking at diversity of thought from all its angles,” says Style.
To that end, bp’s early careers programme also includes school leaver programmes in its trading business, internships at its major office hubs and support for apprenticeships through organizations such as HETA in Hull and OPITO in Scotland, all targeting a slightly younger age group, in order to broaden its access to potential talent.
“Apprenticeships are in an interesting place right now,” says Charlotte Stacey, bp’s UK head of apprenticeship programmes.
“The UK government has introduced the apprenticeship levy to try and improve the country’s productivity levels. Apprenticeships offer greater diversity, but it’s going to require a different way of thinking for us.”
Charlotte Stacey, UK head of apprenticeship programmes, bp
That change is happening, though, with bp launching its first degree apprenticeship programme within its HR function in 2018. “We’re hiring 18-year-olds straight from school who will study for a degree in business studies while working for us,” says Stacey. “We just recruited our second cohort to start in September and had some fantastic students apply. It’s been a real success story.”
But it’s not just about potential staff. The apprenticeship levy is also helping bp offer a growing number of existing employees access to apprenticeship learning across a range of disciplines. And with digital technology set to revolutionize the energy industry, bp has launched the bp data apprenticeship programme in partnership with Decoded and Corndel.
“This is a really exciting programme that is going to help our people upskill at a time when more of us need to understand the impact that data and technology is going to have on our business,” says Stacey.
“For a company that has existed for more than a century, the need to adapt is never far away. But as the speed at which the world of work changes increases, that ability to adapt will rely more heavily on greater diversity of thought. Indeed, a business’s financial success and reputation depend on it”, says Sam Bulkeley, bp diversity and inclusion manager.
“We need young people to aspire to STEM careers. It’s the only way to ensure that bp, and the UK, can continue to flourish in a competitive global market. And research tells us that we need diversity – companies with a diverse workforce are 35% more profitable than those that aren’t. That’s a foolish statistic to ignore.”