How IBM has adapted early professional recruitment and onboarding strategies in light of the pandemic

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Organisations spent £6.6 billion in 2020 on the skills shortage, up from £4.4 billion in 2019 [1] (Open University Business Barometer 2020). These skill shortages are predominantly addressed through recruitment activities, with ever more businesses opting for a sustainable, long-term approach to address the skills gap.

Nearly half (48%) of employers acknowledged that apprenticeships and work-based learning initiatives will be vital to their organisation’s recovery over the next year. This is, however, in the context that UK’s corporations were forced to slash hiring and curtailed apprenticeships over the last year – but there is promise for the future yet.

Three in five organisations (61%) say that they are not as agile as they need to be because of shortfalls in their skills. These organisations are now facing pressure to think ahead and grow their own talent to give their future workforce the skills needed for success. IBM have set in place its own contingencies, meaning they were able to adapt to any market changes.

What changes have IBM made to help early professionals?

Since March 2020, we have run all recruitment and onboarding online. Inductions were split into smaller groups so they are now more interactive (face to face there could be as many as 50 in a group previously). Of course, this has brought a new experience for onboarding in which early professionals  participate, but the feedback has been very positive.

We have become fluent and creative in the use of digital  virtual collaboration tools to keep the process short and punchy to avoid camera fatigue;  interesting functions like breakout rooms, tools like Mural to turn the real classroom into a virtual one: and Slack for chat.

We keep finding ways to engage participants in the conversation without the usual assistance of professional or interesting surroundings such as getting a coffee or going for a walk outside. We are still using a learner-centred approach, but we have just adapted it to the camera and have to be aware of new types of distractions from faulty wifi, to deliveries, cats on keyboards to online chatter going on in the background.

From fast-paced scavenger hunts, ‘draw last night’s dinner’ warm-ups… to business psychology and philosophy fundamentals… our stimulating content ensured that Apprentices stayed focused and most of all – engaged.

This will never replace the feeling of face-to-face interactions, but our new hires have told us that it is less daunting for them and keeps the engagement high and learning impactful.

What has the feedback been like?

We were pleasantly surprised that the satisfaction scores for the virtual inductions were higher. (4% rise in satisfaction index for the online course).. This is something to note for the future, , once we come out of this pandemic.

We have converted all our courses to online so there have been no breaks in  learning for our apprentices.  Our team of trainers have also noted other positives, such as less time spent in travel to different premises. In the post covid world, training is likely to become a hybrid of F2F and virtual.

Feedback from our early professionals on the virtual recruitment and onboarding has been really positive.

“Given the current situation, I was impressed by the induction session which proved to be very interactive and welcoming. There were a lot of chances to ask questions and get involved, plus the activities that were organised helped me to get out of my comfort zone, given the fact that I am not used with working from home.”

“Very well organised and took into consideration very well the current COVID-19 situation and how meeting virtually is much tougher than in person. The organisation was very good and played an important role in making the induction days very enjoyable!”

“Excellent induction, great interactive activities and didn’t make what is an extremely nerve-wracking time (starting a new job with people we have never met before) not intimidating at all. Really enjoyed it.”

So, our Apprentices loved the new virtual learning environment, and the end-of-course feedback was our best ever. The constraints of lockdown need not phase us: always adopting an Agile approach, we will continue to disrupt, adapt and transform.”

What is the onboarding process like at IBM now?

As a result of the pandemic, there is an even greater focus on mental health, with more frequent 121 check ins and activities such as cooking online and quizzes to foster the community spirit. There was even a Harry Potter Escape room event. This is important, not only to keep team spirits high, but on an individual basis too, where so many are struggling with their mental health now.

For a new apprentice it is harder from a networking perspective where previously, groups of them would meet in the canteen for coffee or lunch during a normal working day.

One unexpected bonus is that our early professionals emerge from their induction training also fully fluent in using digital tools:  they put their best virtual foot forward when they start their work with IBM. They often go into their unit showing that team how to use the collaboration tools to their utmost.

So, in the past year, our new early professionals have yet to meet an IBM employee face to face or step foot in an IBM building. Yet all are performing their jobs just as well as in previous years.

IBM’s attraction events in 2021

In terms of attraction events, IBM runs very focused virtual events, for example in January, we ran an attraction event for diversity recruitment over LinkedIn Conceal. We have a very active BAME community who recently ran an attraction event  which took the format of an online panel discussion and Q&A which proved very popular.

We are finding that our virtual events are more popular than the face to face events in terms of the sheer numbers that we have attending. A school event in which I participated just before Christmas 2020 attracted over 2000 attendees and the engagement was of a similar level as face to face, which is really positive.

How IBM hire young talent during Covid

We are proud that IBM honoured all its early professional hiring offers last year despite the challenges presented by Covid.

We have switched to running virtual assessment centres with interviews and group exercises as well as informal chat meetings with current early professionals. We keep the tech requirements to a minimum to make sure everyone can participate and have had zero no-shows – something that was a frequent occurrence when the candidates had to travel to IBM premises.

Forecast for the future

The immediate future is uncertain. A vaccine gives hope for a return to face-to-face interaction for current IBMers and new recruits in the future, but a hybrid approach will likely be implemented as so much of the virtual approach worked so well.

National Apprenticeship Week returns, albeit virtually with a different context surrounding the event. It is a week to celebrate, and we have many exciting events planned to promote apprenticeships and publicise what fantastic opportunities they offer.  Despite the work environment of the world, IBM has continued to standby their recruitment of young people, current IBM apprentices continue to play their part, and new recruits continue to begin their IBM journey.

Apprenticeships can change lives. For the employer, apprenticeships can provide motivated employees at all levels who have the means to develop skills relevant to their organisation. Apprenticeships are proven to raise productivity levels and there is now a wide range of standards available to cover roles in every industry sector.  For the apprentice, apprenticeships provide the unique opportunity to “earn while you learn” whilst also working towards a qualification. They are the perfect vehicle to acquire the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in any chosen industry.

For more information on IBM’s open opportunities for school leavers and apprentices please follow:


Leader of IBM UK's Early Professional Programmes

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