Northumbrian Water Group: Creating an opportunity-driven culture

Northumbrian Water Limited supplies 2.7 million customers in the North East with both water and sewerage services, trading as Northumbrian Water, and 1.8 million customers in the South East with water services, trading as Essex & Suffolk Water. In 2021, Northumbrian Water Group was named the world's most ethical water company for the tenth time and was identified as the 25th Top UK Workplace (Super Large) by the Great Places to Work Institute and awarded Centre of Excellence in Wellbeing status. 

We are active supporters of the One Million Chances campaign and are delighted to add our voice and investment to help achieve this goal. Our work has focused not just on the talent programmes but also on how we can create a really positive people experience to support retention, engagement and employer brand perception. In early 2021 we intentionally pivoted to use the term ‘Opportunity’ - a subtle but significant decision to stop segregating services and to look at recruitment, talent programmes, work experience together rather than in silos. As part of our strategy, we wanted to use ‘Opportunities’ as the more holistic, umbrella lens to look at how we attract, grow, partner and remain in contact with people throughout the colleague life-cycle and beyond. Our micro brand for this is HYDRO – a simple way of putting individuals into the driving seat to review opportunities we have available, an acronym that stands for Helping You Discover the Right Opportunities.  

Having had a legacy of offering opportunities to young people, the last 12 months has seen considerable additional investment particularly in response to the impact of Covid19 on young people. Work started in earnest at our Innovation Festival in September 2020, an entirely virtual event where Innovators from across the globe joined forces with us on virtual design sprints, hacks and dashes aimed at solving real-world issues and big societal problems. The 2020 Festival included a new offering, which was shaped to help overcome the challenges facing those leaving education, through the ‘Class of 2020' programme. We reached school leavers, as well as college and university students across the country, and invited them to take part in a series of events aimed at providing inspiration and practical know-how as they look to the future. The programme for 2021 will specifically target young people leaving school and College, offering them the chance to take part in business assessment centres with the aim of offering a similar experience given to those studying at universities.  

We currently have 49 apprentices within the business the majority of which are under 25. Our apprenticeship opportunities are predominately within our operational departments (Water, Wastewater and Asset Management) and include a mix of level 3 & 4 qualifications. The sector does not commonly attract younger talent and has lower turnover rates than other sectors. Therefore creating an internal culture that supports early careers talent has been key. As part of our diversity work, we have a Young Persons Network, something all our Apprentices are encouraged to become part of as a mechanism of peer to peer support, across our Directorates. We have invested in making this a truly supported experience and have achieved 100% retention of apprentices, who benefit from workplace mentorship and networks by engaging our experienced colleagues in getting involved and supporting the programmes. This year our apprentices designed and ran a conference focusing on how they thrive in the new world of work and the skills helping them succeed now and in the future.  

We adopted the Kickstarter programme in 2019 and have 21 active Kick-starters in our business, all between the ages of 16-24. We continue to recruit more kick-starters each month and will have 35 by the end of 2021. The programme has been a learning curve and required a different approach to our apprenticeship programmes. Building and maintaining the relationship with our regional JobCentre Plus has been key and we’ve worked hard to ensure our opportunities go to a diverse range of people. Some roles just haven’t worked for us via this scheme and we’re continually learning about how we should best develop and define opportunities to attract interest. John Dewey, the famous psychologist & educationalist, talks about the need to get the interest of young people by creating interest, explaining it as both ‘catch’ (capturing initial interest) and ‘hold’ (retaining the interest from application through to participation) and this is something we are focusing on more to help these programmes reach the young people that so desperately need these opportunities.  

In Spring 2021 we sponsored the Common Purpose #Newcastle150 programme, one which brought together a diverse group of leaders, aged 18-25, from across Newcastle to address the question: "What will the legacy of our generation be?". In addition to working with a range of regional employers, including Northumbrian Water, participants also benefited from coaching to help them build professional networks and maximise employability. Supporting programmes such as this has enabled us to reach a really broad audience and offer all-important experience.  

We are committed to both creating and supporting opportunities for young people, our newest work experience programme, Innovate Futures, commences in September and aims to give a diverse cohort of 20 early-career engineers a programme of learning and work experience to help launch their careers.  

We are keen to share best practices and ideas and welcome being part of this campaign to showcase our work but also learn from others.  

Elouise Leonard-Cross, Head of People Strategy and Experience, and Erin Price, Head of Talent and Training, Northumbrian Water Group. 

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