Alan Hansen was famously forced to eat his words in 1996, when his criticism of Manchester United's academy graduates on the opening day of the Premier League season backfired, with the team going on to win the Premier League and the FA Cup.
While most of the channel will not be as opposed to fielding young talent as Hansen was, the notion is perhaps not as explored as it could be. The majority of resellers will have looked on in awe as Softcat reaped the rewards of its famed graduate scheme, with few attempting to replicate the model, at least to the same scale.
But as the skills gap in the UK widens, academy schemes are becoming a more compelling option.
CCS Media, for example, launched an academy in one of its 18 locations two years ago, and has since rolled it out to two other sites. This year, the reseller will induct 60 people across these locations.
James Hardy, deputy managing director at CCS Media, told CRN that the concept was formed when a desire to grow the business started to become hampered by a lack of candidates in the channel.
"The channel has a finite amount of resources," he said. "There is nothing wrong with employing industry-experienced people and that's something that we'll continue to do as long as it's a good fit for our organisation, but the value of developing the next generation of not just CCS Media's talent but the industry's talent, was really appealing for us."
Hardy said that introducing academies required a shift in mentality for CCS, principally around return on investment.
Established salespeople with a history in the channel will likely arrive at a new employee with a client book jammed full of business, Hardy explained. In this instance resellers will expect to see value for money in the first few months that the employee is in the role.
However, resellers should not expect to see instant results from academy graduates. This, he said, is a deterrent for some resellers when considering whether or not setting up an academy is viable.
"Many resellers are looking for people with a contact book; they're looking at the return on the salary investment," he said.
"CCS Media is in a very healthy cash position so we can take a long-term view."
The cash resources of resellers is a further deterrent, he explained. Many will not have the upfront investment required to build out the academies.
While the salaries of the recruits will be significantly less than those of experienced channel recruits, the initial expenditure required to get the academies off the ground is significant.
"The academy approach is actually more expensive," Hardy claimed.
"An academy programme costs more than recruiting industry-experienced people because the break-even point and then the add-value point [of the employees] is typically a lot longer. Also the investment in management and sales coaches is three times that of what it would have been with a typical reseller model.
"The reason a lot of resellers wouldn't opt for the academy approach is the significant investment that you have to make."
The upfront investment may be steep when setting up programmes for graduates, but can be substantially cheaper if this new blood isn't brought in straight from university, according to Robertson Sumner managing director Marc Sumner.
The IT recruiter boss said that his books are filled to the brim with strong sales candidates from other industries wanting to be handed their first opportunity in IT, even though these candidates will likely require less training than university leavers.
He claimed that resellers are often reluctant to even consider experienced sales candidates from outside IT.
These candidates are not graduates and they're not experienced channel salespeople - they are sales professionals with solid records in other industries, but with no IT experience," he said.
"People are still looking for instant results. They're putting square pegs in square holes but there just aren't enough people out there to keep doing that.
"Then they come to recruiters and complain, but the people aren't out there. There are a lot of people outside the industry - such as estate agents and people selling insurance or training - who would love to get into IT because they know it's a lucrative industry, but they're not getting the opportunity.
"I still think that is a better route for people to go down than hiring graduates; train them on the industry rather than sales. There are a lot of people who have the sales skills already and would love to get into the industry, but won't be given a chance."
He added that resellers are often suspicious of recruiters when they try to place candidates with no IT experience, fearing that the recruiter is just trying to secure an easy win.
The reality, he said, is that resellers are overestimating the time it will take for these candidates to learn the workings of the channel.
"In our job we have to go out there and educate the clients," he explained.
"Half the time they think recruiters just want to put anyone in because they can't find anyone. That isn't the case: they're good people who aren't being given a chance.
"All they have to learn is the technology side of things because they already know how to sell. If someone has been successful selling insurance then they just have to understand the channel, which doesn't take long at all."
Location location location
One reseller claiming to be seeing success employing people from outside IT is Sussex-based cybersecurity reseller Blue Cube.
CEO Gary Haycock-West told CRN that the academy initiative stemmed from its struggles in recruiting people to Blue Cube's location.
"We are based in the provinces in East Grinstead", he explained. "We're not in the M3-M4 corridor, so it's not Brighton and it's not London. Sometimes geographically attracting people can be a bit of a challenge."
Haycock-West said that Blue Cube opted not to limit the academy to solely graduates, revealing that previous experience with a recruitment agency that places university leavers to roles had been mixed.
So the firm placed no emphasis on educational background, instead assessing each candidate individually. Blue Cube's first intake was relatively small as the model was tested for the first time, but saw a 50 per cent retention rate.
One graduate of the scheme, a former hardware and software salesperson, is still at Blue Cube and performing well, Haycock-West said - as is his son, who was put through the academy after a few years working in business insolvency.
A couple of people - one a former double glazing salesman and the other a former beauty therapist - fared less well and are
no longer at the reseller.
"We took a view that there would be no preconditions on education level," Haycock-West explained.
"It was about getting people to come in at any level - obviously some IT experience is preferable - and then demonstrate their ability to sell."
How to get started
Haycock-West's advice to other firms considering setting up an academy is to encourage vendors and distributors to get involved in the process.
He explained that it is in a vendor's interest to help train up new IT professionals because they would ultimately end up as a specialist in this vendor's products.
While he said Blue Cube received support from vendors for its first intake into the academy, this is something he will push harder for when the next batch of recruits comes in.
"There has been a willingness from vendors to support us because they know that they can educate them about their products, so there is something in it for them and us," Haycock-West explained.
"Also I would say set the targets higher. We came in and set the targets a bit low, and they have been able to outstrip those, so I think our expectations were a bit lower than what they have been able to achieve."
CCS' Hardy warned that resellers should not take setting up an academy lightly, adding that it requires a different approach from the management team.
"A challenge resellers will have is, first and foremost, the long-term cash commitment to making the programme work," he said. "It's not a short-term strategy.
"One of the other biggest challenges is on-boarding the right management team to oversee the project.
"Another is management capability. The requirement of an academy management team versus the necessities of the management for experienced people is very different. You have to develop the individuals who are entrusting you with their careers and that is so fundamental.
"The big change that we made was instead of having a typical hierarchical structure with a sales manager and salespeople, we invested in sales coaches, who have a specific role of learning and development.
"Each graduate or apprentice has three people with them at any one time working on their individual development, sales coaching, and then general management. That has proved really successful and some of the people who have come through the academy are significantly contributing to the increasing prosperity of CCS Media."
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