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From estate block to coder: Skills open new routes

September 18, 2020

Michelle O’Neill

Skills to Succeed Academy helped Michelle O’Neill see her own potential and a Movement to Work programme set her on the path to a tech career.

Sometimes seemingly routine acts can have a big impact. For Michelle O’Neill, it happens every weekday morning on her South London estate as she walks to her car.

Michelle O’Neill

“I’ll pass younger kids on the estate and they’ll say, ‘Where are you going?’ Why are you up so early?’ I’ll say to them, ‘I’m going to work in an office in the City.’ And they’ll say, ‘Really?’

She too might’ve once reacted in disbelief at the idea of someone from her estate working in an office. But then a Movement to Work programme set her on a path to become a technology apprentice at Accenture where she hopes to one day be leading teams and managing technology projects.

“These kids might be on their way to school and they'll see me going to this job,” Michelle says. “It shows them if I’m doing it and I’m living in the same block as them, they can do it too.”

Her journey towards a career in technology began in 2016 at her local job centre. She was on income support after leaving school at 10 years old, had no qualifications and was a mother with three young children. Michelle mentioned she enjoyed creating computer programmes and her adviser latched onto that fact.

“I didn’t know you could have a career in coding,” she says. “I just thought it was something you did for fun at home.”

She applied for a Movement to Work placement, which inspired her by offering her the opportunity to build her confidence as well as a network, while learning tech and digital skills. “It helps people from different backgrounds come into offices, like Accenture, have a look around, learn some skills and get you on your way.”

During the Movement to Work programme, she was encouraged to apply for Accenture’s apprenticeship programme. She interviewed with Accenture’s apprenticeship senior managers and a managing director. “They were all very helpful, very welcoming,” she remembers. “It was really good because they didn’t judge me for not knowing things.”

She also tried Accenture’s Skills to Succeed Academy, a training programme designed to help people develop confidence in essential skills so they can enter the workforce or start their own business.

From estate block to coder: Skills open new routes

“When you learn through Skills to Succeed, it puts this information that you’re going to need at the front of your mind so you can think of things in a different way,” she says.

The Skills to Succeed programme helped her realise that as a mum, she had developed skills that were valuable in the workplace, such as punctuality, organisation, and an ability to cope with the unexpected.

“I remember thinking ‘Am I supposed to be here?’ We dressed smart, I kept thinking, ‘I look really strange in what I’m wearing.’ Usually I just had jeans and a t-shirt. I don’t think I’d actually worn a pair of trousers before. I was completely out of my comfort zone.”

The senior manager running the apprenticeship programme helped put Michelle at ease by sharing her story.

“Her background was similar to mine. She’d left school early – not as early as me, but still early. She’d done stuff like hairdressing and found her way into tech. I felt like if there are other women like me here that can do it, so can I.”

As part of Movement to Work, she worked and studied full-time at Accenture, earning her Apprenticeship Level 3, alongside the English, Maths and Information Communications Technology qualifications she needed to study for a degree. As an Accenture employee, the company is covering her tuition and she hopes to graduate this year with a first.

“I will officially be the first person in my family to finish school education completely,” she says.

“I want people to see that I come from a disadvantaged background so they will know others can get here.”

During her morning walks across her estate, teens sometimes ask her how she was able to afford a car.

“It’s programmes like these that help them into good jobs,” she says. “So if they were a little stuck, I could say to them, ‘Actually, there’s this great programme that we offer. Just put your name in. It’ll be cool.’”

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