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By Karen Stewart

We have been living with Covid-19 for what feels like forever; businesses had to adapt quickly to new ways of working and the phrase “new normal” has been touted around ever since.

For some, inclusive cultures and building diverse teams in business was a focus before life with Covid-19 and many businesses had long started their journey. With home working being part of our “new normal”, however, this has allowed businesses to think differently.

Here at Nine Twenty, having already implemented a work from anywhere policy we have seen our business flourish. We had spent time beforehand ensuring our teams had everything they needed and the tools to succeed. We focused on our hiring strategy and built teams around attitude rather than experience – we focused also on our own diversity and have watched this starting to pay off.

I have concentrated on building a strong and diverse network throughout my time in the recruitment sector, applying my knowledge and network to help other companies on their own diversity strategy. While the transition to diversity is by no means complete, and while there is always more that can be done, when it comes to corporate awareness, there is a distinct sense of pushing at an open door.

Certainly, among larger – and particularly globally-operating – companies in Scotland, board members are aware of the advantages that diversity can bring, and the tangible benefits of widening the talent pool.

The journey to a diverse work environment is lengthy and does not happen overnight. I educate our clients on the small steps that they can take to work towards having a more inclusive and diverse culture.

Recent examples include changing shift patterns to make them more suitable for working parents and, where possible, offering flexible working. Such small steps can make a huge difference in the long term, both in attracting and retaining the best people.

Many of the larger businesses in my sector have begun their journeys but some smaller businesses with fewer resources are being left behind. This is where Nine Twenty can step in to provide support.

Like their larger counterparts, SMEs can be open to the concept of making diversity work. They can look at flexible working patterns, consider job share opportunities, introduce internships, and facilitate the new environment of working from anywhere.

The important thing is that they do it meaningfully, and do not follow the path of diversity for its own sake. If they engage, they can radically improve their brands, so that a whole new generation sees them as desirable places to build a career.

I sit on the Gender Commission which was set up by Skills Development Scotland. Our collective aim is to deliver a user-friendly report on how to make apprenticeships both more gender aware and gender friendly. The appetite from industry is there and help and support is available.

It is important to work on diversity for the right reasons. Educating clients and supporting them on their learning journeys adds value in the long term.

Social backgrounds, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, are all factors when looking at putting different skills into certain roles. Helping clients to think outside the box has become part of our offering.

I see this particularly in the Scotch Whisky industry, with which I have strong ties and with many of whose members I have acted as a consultant to facilitate progress in opening-up opportunities in their workforces. Responsible for over 100,000 Scottish jobs, and with an export value approaching £5 billion, the industry is a force to be reckoned with.

The direction of travel within the sector has for many years now been towards diversity, and many producers are likely not only to have a female distiller or blender, but also to have more females in technical and frontline roles.

The Chief Executive of the Scotch Whisky Association, Karen Betts, last year launched a Diversity and Inclusivity Charter which “doubled down on our commitment to actively welcome people from all backgrounds to work in our companies”.

To illustrate the potential in industry and manufacturing, here are just a few examples of people whose careers I have seen blossom due to their being bold enough to make unconventional choices.

Take Mairi Brown, 24, who has been working in the drinks industry in England before looking to return to Scotland. Mairi said: “Although Nine Twenty did not ultimately place me in my new position, the support, knowledge and guidance given to me by the Nine Twenty team was second to none. I have built trust in Karen Stewart and know she can support me in my career development over the coming years. Karen clearly has built strong relationships across the industry and her judgement and opinion is respected by her clients and she opened lots of interesting doors for me.”

Gillian Warnock, 33, was spotted by Nine Twenty through a university talent scheme. She had worked outside Scotland and to enable her to come home, was placed by us in the drinks industry with William Grant and Sons Distillers.

She said: “Karen has supported me in my career on a couple of moves. Her expert knowledge of the drinks industry, coupled with the contacts she has, meant that I could be open with my new employer on my longer-term career aspirations from the start.

“The commitment from William Grant and Sons towards my career development has meant that I am working in a role that was not my typical role and I have Nine Twenty to thank for opening a door like this for me.”

Mairi Urquhart, 29, a graduate of Glasgow University who has worked in manufacturing at home and abroad. Recently, (March 2021) I placed her with Chivas (Pernod Ricard) which is the world’s No 2 in drinks sales.

“After returning to the UK from working as a Production Manager overseas, I was recommended to speak with Nine Twenty. With their help I have just secured the position as Head of Continuous Improvement for Chivas and am excited to play an important part in a transformation project”, she said.

At Nine Twenty, our aim is to attract the best people into the manufacturing and engineering sectors, and we will continue our work in this area.

My own experience with Nine Twenty was as an employee before I was given the opportunity to establish my own franchise business within the company.

I had always wanted to run my own business, and, within two years, I had achieved a turnover of over £1 million. Last year I won agreement to sub-franchise and I have now set up an international division and a supply chain division.

The truth is that talent will come out, regardless of sex, colour or abilities – and that is, of course, the way it should be. Commerce in all its shapes is changing to embrace diversity, and people across the spectrum should realise that the opportunities are boundless.

Karen Stewart is Managing Director, Manufacturing and Engineering at Nine Twenty.