The skills debate is changing, but you’re still doing the same

I’m fascinated by the changing employment market. I’m fascinated by education. And I’m absolutely fascinated by the crossover between the two. Any HR professional worth their salt (and there are more than you’d imagine) should be intrigued, concerned and curious about the changing landscape of skills and education.

Let me put it simply,

  • If you’re a carpenter, you need to know that you’re going to get enough good quality wood.
  • If you’re a butcher, you want to know where your meat is coming from.
  • If you make wine, you care about the grapes.

Do we have a skills shortage, a skills deluge or a skill mix problem?

Well, probably a bit of all three.

I was taking part in an interview last week about over skilled and under utilised employees. I won’t take you through the whole thing, you have better things to do with your lives. But a couple of comments stuck in mind.

At the end the interviewer said to me, “thank you, it is great to hear from a company that recognised the presence of a skills mismatch. Most of the companies we’ve spoken to said they haven’t witnessed it.”

Really? My response was, “ask their employees what they think”.

The second was an observation that had been stuck in my brain for a while. When I talk to my colleagues in Germany, a large proportion of the HR people have a PhD. I can’t think of a single one in the UK. Clearly they are over skilled and over qualified. Or not?

I’m not sure there is any point to this. I’m not sure I have a great reveal to make or any insight to give, just more questions.

At a time when we are talking about a skills shortage.

Do we actually have more than we think? Is the labour market broken? Has immigration, the democratisation of tertiary education and the mobility of labour changed the rules of the game?

And are we all struggling to catch up?

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.

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?

The future workforce

If you’re unable to make it to #TruLondon then below is the provocation that I’ll be putting forward in the stream entitled Future Workforce. Please feel free to share your views and we will try to include them in the debate.

“The employment market as we know it is broken. For all we know, it is broken for all time. There are record levels of unemployment, record levels of youth unemployment and yet steadily high levels of unfilled vacancies.

Successive Governments have been incapable or unwilling to address the problems. Private enterprise is consistently moaning about skills shortages but doing little if anything to cure their own ills. And the recruitment industry, which could (and I stress COULD) be the cohesive force, is intellectually stunted, focussed on short-term gain and happy to flog the proverbial dead horse to within an inch of its life.

The problem requires a new way of thinking, a new model. It requires thought leadership, experimentation and innovation. And more than ever it requires courage. But where we see these elements, we also see significant mainstream media pressure to desist. Unpaid internships, government work schemes, university funding changes have all been the subject of liberal left outcry and hysteria.

These solutions might not be correct, but there are few alternative solutions being presented by the critics. Instead they are happy to bathe in the warm glow of self-satisfaction whilst the economy crumbles around our ears.

If we are to solve the problems, we need to think in a totally different way. We need to accept realities that we find unpalatable, but are not without historical precedent. Bonded labour, a significant increase in the single employee company, portfolio careers, a low education but high skill economy.

We need to start the thinking now and only through debate and disagreement will we reach truly innovative 21st century solutions. And we start right here, right now. Or we accept that we are irrelevant , lose competitive edge and ultimately die.”