OVO Energy CIO launches apprenticeship program to help deal with energy and climate crisis

Mark Chillingworth Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth July 25, 2022 Audio mode
Christina Scott launches tech academy at OVO Energy to skill up the firm and secure future talent

An image of OVO Energy logo with a wind farm image behind it
(Image sourced via OVO Energy website)

Climate change, the international energy crisis and the skills shortage - are the three most pressing issues of 2022 and three tasks that, as Chief Product and Technology Officer (CPTO) of OVO Energy, the energy business, Christina Scott, is tackling. All three are interlinked, especially for an energy company. 

In order to tackle them, Scott has launched an apprenticeship program to ensure OVO has the technology skills in place to deal with the energy and climate crisis.

Scott joined OVO in October 2021 to lead the digital product, technology and data teams. Commenting on the young business, which began trading in 2009, she says: 

OVO still has the startup agility of a business that was founded in 2009. It is a fast-paced business, and if you want to get things done, you can mobilize, and that is really motivating.

In the UK's energy industry, OVO has been a story to watch. Within a decade, the business had acquired SSE Energy Services, the retail division of SSE, one of the giants of the UK energy market. The £500 million acquisition saw OVO Energy become one of the UK's largest retail suppliers.

With the SSE acquisition, OVO has increased its digital focus. Commenting on the digital demand, Scott says: 

We have grown rapidly with the SSE Energy Services acquisition, and we are building out leading-edge technology at a time when the energy market is in turmoil.

The invasion of Ukraine, rising inflation (9.1% currently in the UK), and the need for government intervention to support some energy firms - notably Bulb where the government has provided £2.2 billion to keep the business running - this has placed the UK energy sector into a period of major disruption. Digital services to customers and digital internal methods are seen as one of the vital responses by the sector to the two challenges. Hence Scott is investing in the talent pipeline of OVO. She says: 

My team cannot go fast enough.

Apprenticeship levy

In September, just as the heating begins to be used again, OVO's first tranche of apprentices will begin work. Scott and OVO Energy announced the OVO Tech Academy in May 2022 as part of a partnership with the training organization Makers Academy. Scott says:

We are starting with software engineers but will look at other disciplines in the near future.

The apprentices joined in July and will initially be part of a Makers Academy boot camp, which will embed software engineering skills. Each apprentice is engaged in a Level 4 Software Developers course, which is the equivalent of a foundation degree. OVO is using the apprenticeship levy, which was announced by the UK's Chancellor of the Exchequer in April 2017, to fund the program. Organizations with a wage bill over £3 million have to pay 0.5% of that pay bill towards the Apprentice Levy. Scott adds:

By launching the OVO Tech Academy, we want to set up pathways for success, ensuring our future apprentices have the tools, support and advice on hand to thrive here at OVO.

Also, we are pretty flexible in terms of location; I have people all over the UK.

OVO Energy has 350 software engineers within the business, which the apprentices will work directly with come September 2022. Scott says flexibility and culture are a significant part of setting up an apprenticeship program and overall talent recruitment and retention. 

With the high levels of pressure on the energy sector, the CPTO may not be able to compete with the salaries offered by some technology and financial services firms, but she says values, training and culture are more important to many recruits. The mission of OVO to be a sustainable energy provider helps Scott attract the talent she requires; she says:

A lot of firms talk about a purpose, but it is really an add-on. We have a purpose at the heart and the majority of the people at OVO believe in the purpose to be a sustainable energy firm, and that is to our advantage.

Scott has put apprenticeship programs into her last two roles, as Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of News UK, the Rupert Murdoch-owned media business, and as Chief Product and Information Officer (CPIO) of the Financial Times. And in both previous occasions, Scott has seen business benefits. She says: 

Some worry that apprentices have no experience and require a lot of time, but actually, apprentices bring a new perspective, and they come in and challenge the business. I am always blown away by them and the dynamic they bring.

Existing teams really sit up when an apprentice comes into their teams because they bring a lot of energy.

A further advantage of deploying apprenticeship programs is the positive impact apprenticeships have on diversity; Scott says:

I have generally focused on gender diversity, but that has to come alongside a diversity of backgrounds, faiths and every other form. In the past, technology in the UK has been a bit myopic and expected people to be a graduate in computer science; you don't have to be. The beauty of working with Makers is that they are open to anybody who has potential, rather than being rigid about the background.

Makers Academy, a London-headquartered training company, was a known quantity to Scott. The CTPO says the demand for digital skills outside of Software Engineering at OVO is such that she is likely to work with other providers.

As was detailed recently on diginomica, CIOs and CTOs are beginning to re-appraise apprenticeships, as well as other training partnership options, to secure the talent they require. Asked if she believes skills development is now a key part of the role, Scott says:

Access to skills has been a challenge for a number of years, and I think it is part of the job as a CIO to offer a fulfilling career. It is absolutely critical for the company and, in fact the country, without wishing to sound too lofty, to have good technology talent.

When we get into a position where we can make a difference, then we should do it.

My take

Education and training are passion points for me as a writer. As I've detailed here before, interest in apprenticeships, training partnerships and collaborating with universities is rising amongst CIOs and CTOs. Case study examples such as the three apprenticeship programs that Scott has put in place are important to keep the momentum growing and to ensure the world economy has the talent it requires to digitise and tackle issues such as climate change.OVO CIO adds apprenticeship energy

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