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How using Virtual Reality has dramatically improved the prison officer job seeker experience

Following the announcement recently from the Ministry of Justice that 80% of the target to recruit a massive 2,500 new prison officers by December 2018 has already been achieved, we thought we would use this as an opportunity to explore what Shared Services Connected Ltd (SSCL*) is doing in partnership with its public sector clients to drive innovation in recruitment. After all, this was not your average recruitment campaign. Rather than just placing adverts on job boards, waiting for the applications to pile in and sifting through CVs, the recruitment of prison officers – especially in such large quantities – required a very different approach.  

We caught up with Angela Lyons, Head of Prison Officer Recruitment, Shared Services Connected Ltd and Richard Carter, Head of HR Innovation & Change, Shared Services Connected Ltd, to see what the challenges were and how we worked with Ministry of Justice to overcome these using an innovative approach and the latest available technology.

Firstly, can you give us some background on our involvement with the Ministry of Justice?

Richard: “We provide the full end-to-end HR & Payroll administrative services to the Ministry of Justice. This starts at the recruitment and pre-employment process, and our employee and manager services continue right the way through the MoJ employment lifecycle. This includes providing MoJ employees with use of Europe’s largest single self-service platform specially designed for our Government clients.”  

How do you go about planning a recruitment campaign like this?

Angela: “Well, we’ve been working very closely with Her Majesty’s Prison and Probations Service (HMPPS), part of MoJ, for a very long time to understand the complexities and demands on the service and those working within it. Together, SSCL and HMPPS have been able to form a team with the necessary expertise to plan the process, from the attraction strategy and the application process, through to the online on-boarding sites… and not forgetting to simply manage the volume of applicants which was approx. 140,000 progressing through the recruitment process in 2017!

To succeed in a recruitment drive of this size takes a huge amount of flexibility to adapt and manage changing priorities, and above all a focus on the customer needs, both the needs of HMPPS and those of the applicants hoping to start a rewarding career as a Prison Officer."  

Obviously a Prison Officer role is not for everyone. What skills are the Ministry of Justice looking for, and how do you go about finding out if candidates have what it takes?  

Angela: “The Ministry of Justice advert states:  

‘Working in a prison is no ordinary job. But if you have the communications skills, the resilience, and the dedication, it could be a very rewarding career. Day to day, you’ll help to create a safe, secure environment where rehabilitation is supported and encouraged.’  

It’s not a case of one size fits all and I don’t believe there is a “template” Prison Officer; the role requires a number of different skills and attributes, and it’s a demanding job both physically and emotionally. The recruitment process is designed to test and select the right candidates and this is achieved through multiple assessment stages. There is also a huge importance put on the applicant to decide for themselves whether they feel they have what it takes to work as a Prison Officer. In order to do this, SSCL has worked closely with HMPPS to produce a range of engaging tools designed to give the applicants the information they need to make this decision. In a very short space of time, we have produced pages within the recruitment system that provide applicants with information about the role, the Prison Establishment they could be working in, comments from existing Prison Officers and engaging videos providing an insight into the day-to-day job.   

A focus has also been placed on keeping successful applicants engaged prior to their first day at the establishments. In order to do this we have developed onboarding sites for individual prison establishments, which provide the applicant with further insight into the establishment they will be joining, introduction videos from the Governor and their Mentor, information to help them prepare for their first day and beyond, and a forum to provide support and enable the successful applicants to get to know their future colleagues.

However, one of the most engaging tools that we have developed is the use of 360 Virtual Reality Tours. These have been filmed and produced by SSCL and can be viewable through a mobile device on YouTube. Or for an even more immersive experience, they can be used with VR Headsets, giving the viewer a realistic insight into being in a Prison.”  

How did people respond to using virtual reality headsets as a recruitment tool?

Richard: “HMPPS and SSCL have held a number of recruitment events using the VR Headsets and these have proved a very effective way of getting people to think about what it will be actually like to work within the prison environment and ask the right questions to gauge their own suitability. By far the most popular part of the recruitment events, the feedback from people on the day has been amazing, even from existing Prison Officers. For most people, the only vision of a prison they have is from TV dramas which isn’t always the most accurate depiction of the working environment and on the whole, far from a good recruitment tool!   

The 360 virtual tour serves the purpose of making you feel as if you are in the prison, experiencing some of the sights and sounds. From my personal experience of going into the prisons to help with some of the video production, it’s the sounds that hit you first and its surprising how that can make you feel. I have a huge amount of respect for Prison Officers and it’s essential that we use immersive tools such as this to get the right calibre of applicant. The next stage in development is use of VR and gamification for Prison Officer training.”  

What have you learned from this experience that would be helpful in other instances of challenging recruitment requirements?  

Angela: “You really have to engage applicants’ interest in the job, and make them ask the right questions of themselves about whether they are right for the role. It shouldn’t be a numbers game of attracting as many people as you can, irrelevant of their suitability. One of the key challenges of good recruitment isn’t just finding the right candidate to be successful in the process, but it’s to find the candidates who have the drive, passion and dedication to succeed in the job and the emotional strength to stay in it for the long-term.   I’ve also learned that as a team, you need to be able to be flexible and willing to adapt and change at short notice. Quite often you need to think outside of the box to come up with a solution in order to meet the requirements and expectations of the stakeholders.”    

Thanks and congratulations to the teams involved at HMPPS, MoJ and SSCL who have worked together to achieve this huge accomplishment that will have a positive impact on our society.  

*SSCL is a trading name of Shared Services Connected Ltd.


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