Last month, our friends at O2 had their status as Social Mobility Business Champions renewed. It’s a bit of a mouthful, but the award means that O2 has been recognised for being a business that helps young people to get into work, no matter what their situation. Not everybody wants to, or can, go to university, so the team has been busy helping young people to get into work, whether they’ve followed a traditional route or not.

We spoke to Ann Pickering, the HR Director at O2, to find out why, when it comes to work, you shouldn’t let your background hold you back…

Hi Ann! Why do you think it’s important for big businesses like O2 to support young people?

I think it’s incumbent on all businesses, big and small, to support the next generation. Not to do that will be at our peril really because these are the leaders of tomorrow. For me, there’s a moral imperative, I think we as a generation of business need to help the next generation, but there’s also a commercial imperative. If we don’t start getting to young people earlier, we’re going to have a problem in the economy.

Are you proud of the impact that O2 has made so far?

Yeah I am super proud! We’ve done a lot of work in the apprenticeship arena, we’re going to be creating more apprenticeships this year. O2 Think Big is a great social action programme, backing young people and young businesses to use digital technologies as force for progress. Think Big Schools is really important, we’ve got to get out to schools early, to help students understand the world of work and what an array of digital skills they’ve got.

How do you think young people are perceived by employers today?

I think the tide is changing and big businesses are realising that this is the future. We got off to a slow start, but now people are cottoning on to the fact that young people are really essential to future business, so I think we’re in better shape now. I see apprentices now starting to get to the forefront of businesses, whereas before it wasn’t like that, so I think people are seeing the value of young people and what they can bring. Lots of organisations now, particularly those reliant on STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] subjects, are taking a bit more responsibility and creating a workforce that’s fit for the future. Getting young people in and training them on the job or working with schools to inspire and educate is really starting to happen much more now.

O2 often hires people based on mind-sets rather than experience, could you explain this philosophy?

Yes! In the world of technology it’s almost impossible to know what skills you’ll require in the future. Five years ago, maybe not even that long ago, social media was something that kids used to talk to their mates. Now we have a team of people whose job is to talk to our 25 million customers via social media. For customers that interact with our social media team, their customer satisfaction is, on average four points higher. If you’d asked me five years ago, was I going to have a team of people using social media, I would have said “don’t be so stupid!” but now they’re a really important part of my workforce. So that’s an example of not really understanding, or not knowing, what skills are required for the future. You have to recruit based on attitude. You can train for skill, so that’s what we do.

So should young people be shouting about their digital skills more?

Young people are naturally digitally capable. They’re a generation who’ve grown up with the internet, I don’t believe they know how good they are in terms of skillset. I go out to schools a lot, I will say to a group: “how many of you believe you are digitally capable?” and one geek will put their hand up! The next question is: “how many of you were on social media this morning?” and the whole group of people will put their hands up. To them, it’s just what they do. To people in a different generation these are fabulous skills that a lot of organisations will need, so we need to help young people understand the skills that they have.

What can young people do to stand out when they’re applying for jobs?

What I want to see is people who are curious. I want to see people who are interested and interesting. You need to nail your story. If you met Richard Branson and he said: “tell me about you”, what is it that you can say in 30 seconds that will make you attractive to him or any employer? That’s more than a CV. I’m really interested in seeing what people do outside school, not just how many GCSEs they’ve got. Are you in a sports team? Do you help out at the local church or mosque? Do you help out in the family business? Do you babysit? Do you referee footie matches? That’s the stuff we’re looking for.

So if you’re struggling to get into work through traditional routes, would volunteering be a good thing to put on your CV?

Absolutely! That’s our bread and butter, that’s what I’m looking for. If I’ve got two young people sitting in front of me, one might have 11 A*s, the other might have seven. If the one who’s got seven has done more volunteering or social enterprise, I’m going to be more interested in that young person.

What was your first ever job?

My first ever job was as a Saturday girl at a newsagents in Liverpool called Murphy’s. Mr and Mrs Murphy employed me, and it was just literally that: working in the newsagents. But do you know what? I loved it! That’s when I realised I liked working with customers, coming in, having a chat, remembering what newspapers they wanted to buy. That helped me realise that working with people was what I wanted to do, even the snotty customers when you got it wrong! So, it gave me a bit of insight.

What advice do you have for young people starting out in the world of work?

Learn to deal with disappointment: I think the biggest challenge in my career was, I actually didn’t get this job the first time round. Several years ago, I was not considered for this position. I remember thinking: ‘What do I do? Do I leave?’ because I was really disappointed that I didn’t even get considered. I went home and I thought to myself: ‘you know what, everything else about O2 is right’. I love the company, I did enjoy the job I was doing, I was learning everyday and I worked with great people and I just thought: ‘don’t throw it away because of this’. 11 months later I got the job. I have to say when I look back, I wouldn’t have been ready to do the job. I didn’t have sufficient experience at that point. But twelve months later, I think I did. But I realised then that you need to have a bit of emotional resilience because everybody, young people particularly, will meet disappointment. How you deal with disappointments is really important.

Get experience: I would say you don’t need to specialise too early. Just get experience under your belt and do different stuff. No job is a wasted job, so don’t be disappointed if at first you don’t get into the job of your dreams, if you want it enough it will happen. Getting experience is really what counts. I think people are better off going into a job that isn’t their first choice than not going into a job at all. There’s never a wasted job!

Liked this? You might also enjoy…

Have Your CV Reviewed By The O2 Team

“I Look At CVs Everyday”: How To Stand Out

Tech Careers Tips From The Lab At O2