Role reversal - closing the industry skills gap

A reverse mentoring pilot scheme is helping to close the growing skills gap in the industry. Rebecca Wooding caught up with two of the participants to find out how they were getting on.

Vincent Hurley (left) and Phil Armitage.

ACE Progress Network's reverse mentoring pilot scheme, which was successfully launched on 21 June 2017 with 11 mentor-mentee pairs from seven ACE companies participating, is now half-way through its eight-month programme and is proving to be a key asset to businesses. 

The innovative pilot was developed as an answer to an industry-wide need to close the growing skills gap, improve business resilience in a fast-pace technological environment and enhance retention.  

To catch up on how the pairs were progressing, we spoke to Vincent Hurley (VH) (mentor) and Phil Armitage (PH) (mentee), who both work at Max Fordham LPP, a mechanical and electrical building services consultancy. 

The pair have met three times so far, each for a two-hour reverse mentoring session. During each session, the two have held discussions from different perspectives on the challenges and usefulness of work-efficiency generating technologies for individuals and project teams. As well as building key technological competencies, part of the sessions have been focused on building Vincent's (junior engineer) commercial awareness and business knowledge, capitalising on two-way learning.  The two shared their experiences on their new relationship to date.

What's your ‘day job’?

VH: I'm an electrical engineer with just under three years’ experience from graduation. I’m currently working on a unique student accommodation PassivHaus refurbishment at the University of Oxford with Max Fordham.

PA: As senior partner of Max Fordham I wear many hats. I still maintain an engineering role, drawing on my 30 years’ experience within the industry, but I also have management responsibilities sitting on the equivalent of our board of directors and managing our Cambridge office. 

Why did you get involved in the reverse mentoring pilot?

PA: I am enthusiastic about the potential of IT to improve the quality of working life and I’m also interested in the evolution of working practices.  The pilot seemed like a very good opportunity to understand the extent of the generation gap in our practice and to develop an insight into the working practices of other organisations.

VH: I have found that there can sometimes be communication barriers between junior employees and senior employees. I wanted to investigate a way for both juniors and seniors to improve their communication and capitalise on the use of new online tools for this purpose.

Do you think you have benefitted from reverse mentoring?  If so how?

PA: Definitely. We are half way through the pilot and have understood the reality of the generation gap, which, for us, is smaller than we thought it might be. We have decided to focus more on evolving working practices, particularly in the areas of collaborative working and improving efficiency, and to tackle some more extreme commercial challenges.

VH: Yes, I believe I have gained an insight into how senior management works and the development of a business alongside its IT strategies. It is rewarding to know that my opinions on certain topics are valuable to a senior member of Max Fordham. Furthermore, the relationship has eliminated my fear of the unknown and made me more comfortable when speaking to seniors.

What do you think are the key challenges facing consultancy and engineering companies in the future?

VH: Ensuring that more senior staff actually take the time to learn how to use new technologies and applications as they become more commonplace in work environments. This is particularly important as any technology that juniors use, but that seniors refuse to learn, only increases the divide between junior and senior staff.

PA: The trend is that we are expected to do more for less and quicker.  Understanding how to attract and keep good people, maintain the quality of the work while spending less time, and the effect that increasing automation will have on the nature of our role as designers are all issues that have long term effects on the success of organisations.

What advice can you give to companies struggling with the fast-paced changes in technology?

PA: Maintaining the right balance between stability and change is really tricky. At Max Fordham we have found that allowing individual enthusiasts to experiment with new technology helps us to understand what is valuable. Having a broadly representative group of people involved in agreeing strategic changes has also allowed us to make reasonably good progress with our systems and functionality. I think that a really interesting question to ask yourself is “If we started up today, how would we work and what would our IT look like”?.

VH: I don't think there is a hard and fast solution. However, it should be part of a business strategy to actively invest time in learning how to use new software and applications as they come out, at least on a trial or pilot basis, to determine if the technology is suitable for their company early on.

How important is it for senior staff not rely on junior staff for technology know-how?

PA: Technology underpins so much of how we work already that it is important for everyone to engage, not just junior staff.  Technology holds the promise of improving the quality of work and our working life, but that promise can only be delivered by embracing change. The rate of technological change in the outside world only ever seems to increase and people’s expectations are now driven by the functionality they can experience at home.

VH: Very. Failure for all generations to develop simultaneously increase divides in competency, communication and overall understanding and therefore is an unsustainable business model. 

Can you see reverse mentoring as the norm one day?

VH: Yes. I can see the benefits as a learning tool for both the senior and junior staff. Now that I have had the insight into its advantages, I think it would be a shame if reverse mentoring is not widely practiced. 

PA: Ideally the contact between people at all levels of experience in organisations should be good enough that reverse mentoring isn’t seen as a need.

If your company is interested in finding out more about the Progress Network reverse mentoring pilot scheme, please contact Anil Iyer at 

Rebecca Wooding is the national vice-chair of the Progress Network for emerging professionals in the natural and built environment and a hydropower engineer with Mott MacDonald. 

If you would like to contact Andy Walker about this, or any other story, please email