A letter to Penny

Dear Penny,

I wanted to write to thank you for your letter. I realise that replying to it twenty-two years after receipt is probably considered bad form. But then, at the time, I wasn’t ready to reply. And it was only this weekend that I was going through some boxes that I came across it and read and appreciated it.

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Not missing the irony that, of course, this week people will be getting their own A-level results. And some of them will feel like I felt, back in 1992.

The strange thing about education, about our system is that we place so much importance on that very short period of time. You know, you and a few of the other teachers were absolutely right. I needed to go, I needed to get away and I needed to see what I could make of life.

At the time I was too obsessed with the opportunities that I saw diminishing before my eyes, to realise the world of opportunity that nonetheless awaited me. “But I was supposed to…” was the phrase that kept on going through my mind.

But life isn’t about “supposed to” or “should have”, life is about “can do” and “did do”. It took me the best part of twenty years to realise that. Before then I was too busy wanting to stick two fingers up to the past and show people I could be a success. I guess in some ways I’m grateful that this was my reaction to failure, rather than to get subsumed by it. Some people do.

The simple answer to your question though, is that I’m doing well. Life has been good to me, we’ve been successful and healthy and happy together. I’ve got to do things that I would never have dreamt would have been possible in that moment when I opened those results and saw the letters C,D&E. I’ve worked in amazing companies with some of the brightest people in their sectors. And together we’ve repeatedly made history.

And it makes me think that this week, like me 22 years ago, there are going to be people all over the country that are going to feel the world collapse under their feet as they look at the letters that they have on their screens (what happened to paper?)

My message to them is to, “go, get away and make what they can of life. Focus on what you can do and will do, not what you can’t do or won’t do. Your world feels limited, reduced and cruelly diminished. But your talents aren’t. You are everything that you were before and more. And you will be even greater still”.

With a bit of luck, they’ll have had teachers that cared for them, that nurtured them, that educated them. Not to pass exams, but (like I did) to help them grow. I hope they go out there and prove you right and the system wrong. I want them to be focussed, be successful and be happy.

Thanks for teaching me this Penny. I’m sorry it took me so long to realise and to learn, but maybe that’s why I didn’t do as well as I wanted. I’m a little bit slow. I hope life treated you well and I’m sorry we lost contact. Who knows, maybe the connected world of the web will rectify that.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

Neil

PS. You’re too kind about the poetry, it was always a bit crap. But I guess I’m still writing, so that’s ok?

NB. If anyone happens to know the whereabouts of Penny Salkield, it would be my absolute pleasure to thank her in person.

Ignore generational trends at your peril

I know the are a lot of people out there who are adverse to the idea of any generational comparisons. I get that, The Generation Y piece is the neglected Bank Holiday barbecue sausage of a topic, cooked to within an inch of its life, unpalatable to fairly much all and a shadow of its intended state. But as a profession, we need to be curious about the macro environment, we need to be interested in demographics and we need to look at the generational factors that may be impacting on our supply chain: the workforce.

Generalising from the specific is never a good idea, but trying to disprove trends by raising anomalies is also foolish. We should be better at analysis than that, we should be more questioning and we should be more thoughtful. Because there is something going on with the current generation of job seekers and we should be aware of this as employers.

I was sat last Thursday having dinner with five French people in their seventies, all now retired. Two had worked their own farm, one had worked in accountancy and two were (what we now call) serial entrepreneurs. Like any conversation in the euro zone at the moment, it wasn’t long before it turned to the economy and specifically employment. The views of the current generation of jobless were, at best, damning. Not about their skills, their abilities but their willingness to take opportunities. I heard time and time again, “the jobs are there, they just don’t want to do them”. Coincidentally this came on the same day that Jamie Oliver made his comments about UK employees and their attitudes to work.

But is this coincidence? Or something else?

I first wrote about this topic in 2010 and recounted a conversation that I’d had two years earlier when I was being lectured to about the needs of GenerationY. My response, over six years ago now, was that we’d witness a massive economic downturn, the labour market would toughen and that the winners would be from the less advantaged countries, who were willing to work harder and start at the bottom. It was a bit of a throwaway comment at the time, but true words spoken in jest and all that.

I know that there are hardworking young people out there, I see and meet with them all the time. I know that there are lazy work shy, feckless septuagenarians too. But I don’t think we should overlook a body of anecdotal and empirical evidence that suggests that we have are witnessing a mismatch in expectations (and I’m not just talking about these two occurrences) that is leading to an employment gap.

Do we need to prepare ourselves for a lost generation? Do we let market forces take their course and allow the next generation to right the wrong? Do we need to do more as employers? Or do we write this off as generational nonsense and bury our heads back in the sand?

The CIPD launched a brilliant piece of research earlier this year “Employers are from Mars, young people are from Venus”, which if you haven’t read, I’d implore you to do so. It explores a number of these issues.

As for the answer, well I’m not sure. But one thing I’ve learnt over the years, is that when you see a dripping tap, or a crack in the wall, you’re better off inspecting it and looking at the root cause, rather than turning a blind eye and pretending it doesn’t exist.

Open up your door

If I promise not to rant, will you bear with me a minute? Because I need to get serious, just for a while.

Back in 1992 I left my state school. I didn’t come from a particularly privileged family, but by no means was I disadvantaged. My dad was a civil servant and my mum was a lecturer at the local FE college. I didn’t get particularly good A-levels, in fact they were poor….the letters, C, D and E were involved. More than once.

As a result, I didn’t get in to any of my first choice universities. I went in to clearing and eventually got a place at the University of Sunderland (Polytechnic) and went there to study Psychology. I graduated in 1995.

What is he talking about? I can hear you say it. Where is he going?

But, if I told you…..you might not keep reading. And you need to read on.

1995 wasn’t a great time to be graduating, jobs weren’t abundant, businesses were on their knees. I applied for graduate schemes but I didn’t have the university, the school or the polish to pull it off. I was directionless.

Not being able to get a job, someone suggested I study for the IPM (Institute of Personnel Management). Given I had nothing else to do, I did. Working nights to fund the fees and moving back in with my parents with my newly married wife. It wasn’t great. But it wasn’t horrific.

Even then, with my shiny postgraduate, I still couldn’t get a job. I have hundreds, HUNDREDS of rejection letters in a file at home. Everything asked for experience, but no-one wanted to give you experience. It was a classic Catch 22.

Then something special happened to me. I applied for a job at a crappy old hospital in a crappy part of the world. But, I didn’t know it then, there was someone willing to take a chance. The interview was a blur, but I remember cracking a joke about my wedding being in French and unsuspectingly marrying the wrong woman…..it wasn’t my greatest joke.

I left and walked back to the bus that would take me to the train, that would take me to the other train, that would take me to the ferry, that would eventually take me home.

And then I heard a voice behind me. It was a guy called Colin Moore. And Colin offered me a job. A chance. An opportunity.

That moment took place nearly 17 years ago.

The work wasn’t brilliant, the job wasn’t amazing, the location was frankly shite. I spent Sunday to Friday in a bedsit, before travelling for four hours back home for Friday and Saturday nights. But it was a chance. It was an opportunity. It was proper experience and it gave me a chance to start my career.

Nearly two decades later, I’m not doing too badly. I’m doing ok. I think I’ve grown a bit, I’ve learnt a bit. But it was all down to that one person that was willing to take a punt on a snotty nosed idiot with no experience.

And that’s why I’m so proud today to be supporting the launch of the Open Doors Campaign and particularly through the Talent Tour taking place. I don’t care what your politics are, the issue of social mobility and talent management are intrinsically linked. And Open Doors is trying to change the way that we, in business, do things to open up opportunities for young people regardless of their backgrounds.

I’m proud that my company was an early signatory to the Business Compact on Social Mobility. I’m proud of the work that my team do to increase transparency of opportunity.

If you work in HR or you are a business owner, no matter how big, no matter how small, I’d urge you to get involved. If you are on social media I would BEG you, today to publicise the campaign by following @dpmoffice & @JamesCaan or the hashtag #MissionOpeningDoors. And if you have a personal story to share about your own career break then please use the hashtag #MyBigBreak.

This is an opportunity for the HR community online to show their power, their influence and to raise awareness of an issue that many of us have debated time and time again. So go tweet, go Retweet, put political boundaries aside for today and be the people that really make change happen.

Thank you. This means so much to me, both personally and professionally. Maybe together we can really make a difference.

The youth unemployment challenge: Day Two of #CIPD12

I’ve written about unemployment, skills and training on a number of occasions – because it is an issue that is close to my heart and because it is an issue that is close to the heart of our economy and future competitiveness.  I was therefore, absolutely delighted to see it taking centre stage on day 2 of the CIPD Conference with a panel discussion involving Peter Cheese, CEO of the CIPD, Michael Davis, CEO of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, Anne Pickering, HR Director for O2, Toby Peyton-Jones Director of HR for Siemens UK & North West Europe and also Jo Swinson, Minister for Employment Relations and Consumer Affairs.

The debate was a good one and unsurprisingly a number of key themes and issues were highlighted. The current issues that we are experience in youth employment are structural and not cyclical. This is not an issue just driven by the current economic environment, but has been a long time coming as highlighted in this blog by Mervyn Dinnen, caused by a decline in entry-level jobs and a reduction in big one company towns.  Add to this the contradiction of employers requiring work experience and young job seekers’ inability to get that work experience and we have ourselves a problem.

The problems are long-term and structural and likewise the solutions will also be long-term and structural. O2 talked about their inability to actually predict the skill sets that will be required in the future because of the speed of change in technology, requiring them to focus on recruiting mindset and broad skills instead. Siemens, in a rather germanic way, talked about how they had mapped out future mega trends to help understand the markets that they would need to be growing in and therefore which future skills they would be needing.

And of course, there was talk of the education system, vocational training, the role of universities and work experience schemes.

It is probably here that there are more questions than answers. Clearly there is a need for reform, but as I’ve written before, we seem to be dancing around the edges and sending contradictory messages. Take this, all the panelists including Swinson were extolling the virtue of other routes into employment other than university. Agreed. But we don’t seem to act as if it is.

As I tweeted at the time, I struggle to understand why we happily loan someone £27k to study for a degree in Zoology, but we won’t loan a job seeker money to undertake unpaid work experience, workplace training or even to start their own business.  When Government funds workplace schemes they give the money to the employer and the job seeker has to apply for it. Almost as if we don’t trust them with the money in the way that we would someone going to University.

It also strikes me that we place the power with the organisation and not the job seeker. Would an alternative model be to provide the funding to the job seeker? Although it wouldn’t change the overall outcome it would change the ethos. If I think Tesco aren’t providing as good an opportunity as Asda or Lloyds as Barclays then I can take my money to the employer I think would train and educate me best.  Creating competition between employers as well as between job seekers. It would also potentially open up more opportunities with SMEs and other companies who may not have the resources and the structure to apply fo Government funding in the way that larger organisations can.

I’m sure there a thousand holes that can be picked in this argument at the moment and I need to reflect on it and work it through more. But it seems that we would have a better bet if we both empower the young unemployed to find work and challenge organisations to create it. Businesses are competitive by nature, shouldn’t we be making the most of that?