Get a proper job

In my middle teens, I dreamed of owning and running my own restaurant. It combined my love of cooking, food and entertaining with an interest in business and management. When I expressed this view to those influential in my life, the consensus was pretty clear – get a proper job.

Many years later, I’m sure the advice was well-meaning and correct. I’m not sure the world needs another mediocre restaurateur (although it could be argued that they didn’t need another mediocre HR Director either) and I struggle to think of a day I’ve not wanted to go in to work.

I wonder how many students in college and university are also being advised about which jobs and careers are “proper” and which ones they should avoid. And how are the judgments made about the “right” career paths. What makes counting other people’s money or learning and arguing a set of created laws, “proper” and yet feeding them or building their houses somehow less…well, concrete?

Is the heart of the issue is our approach to education and skills and the perceived link to future wealth and prosperity.? “Proper jobs” are seen as more secure, better paying and require more skills. And whilst this is attractive in it’s simplicity, it is hard to see how a good apprenticeship in engineering will place you in a less advantageous position than, say, a degree in criminology.

With the additional complexity of trying to understand which sectors and roles will be in increasing demand and which will see the largest impact of automation (and in what time frame), the definition of a “proper job” becomes significantly more about prejudice and perception than any predictable outcome of future fortune.

Perhaps our biggest fault as a society has been to overlook the importance of skilled, technically able careers and replace it with the fetishisation of “management” and “professionalism”. Not only are we encouraging young people away from careers that they might actually enjoy and find fulfilling, but have also inadvertently created skills and labour shortages in many essential areas.

I may not have made a very good restaurateur, I’m at peace with that, but I certainly value those people around me that are brilliantly skilled in their work and who have a depth of technical expertise in their fields that I am in awe of. And let’s face it, in a post apocalyptic society, who would you rather have on your side – a farmer, a builder and an engineer or a banker, a social media consultant and a HRD?

Conversation is not enough

In a country still reeling from the largely unforeseen referendum in June, the US election result added a further sense of discombobulation to the many attendees at the CIPD Conference last week, who reacted to the unexpected news on Wednesday morning with a level of predictable hysteria.

A lot of the debate at the conference followed the theme of the future of work and making work more human. Themes that I (and others) have been implementing, writing and talking about for over five years. And whilst it is great to see the mainstream finally adopt the same agenda, it fills me with a deep and profound sense of unease.

Both electoral outcomes were largely unseen by the liberal elite, the same people that talk of making work more human. Both outcomes were partly driven by a sense of societal injustice, unfairness and frustration with the role that the establishment has played. Or perhaps, more accurately, the role the establishment has not played.

If we believe in fairness, if we believe in humanity, if we believe the future of work is indeed human, it is beholden on us to do less talking and more acting. Positive outcomes are not achieved through well meaning dialogue but through the actions we take and the changes we make. Positive outcomes are not achieved in the warm bubble of elitist consensus, but by taking ourselves out of our comfort zones and listening more than we talk.

We have to accept that “we” have got things wrong, not “them” and that “we” can make the change, not “them”. We have to accept that the inequalities in work, housing, education, society come from our hand and from the hands of our like. But that we can also make changes that matter, right here, right now.

In my darker moments, I fear we do not have enough time and that ultimately the change that needs to be made will be provoked by external circumstances out of our control. That the burning platform will not be lit by our hand. But if there is a chance, if there is an opportunity, if we have a moment in which we can change things for the better, it will surely only come from meaningful, visible action, and not well intentioned, but impotent talk.

Leaving the conference I got in to a cab to go back to the station. The driver asked me where I’d been and what sort of things I spoke about. When I explaned, he replied, “Good luck with that! It’s dog eat dog out there. Don’t get me wrong, I agree with the sentiment, I just don’t see how it is ever going to happen”.

Unless we start to act, I think he’s probably right.

Education is more important than politics

My son was born in February 2000. That may seem an unimportant fact, and in truth it is, other than it places him close to being born at the turn of the millennium. At the time of his birth, the Secretary of State for Education was David Blunkett.

As he now approaches his 17th birthday (my son, not Blunkett) and enters in to the last stage of his secondary education, Justine Greening is the holder of the same position.

What I find quite remarkable is that by the time he reaches the end of his studies in spring 2018, and assuming no further changes, there will have been a total of NINE holders of this position. At present, the average tenure of the person responsible for education, during his lifetime, falls short of two years.

It isn’t an unusual pattern, in fact you have to go back to 1918 and Herbert Fisher to find anyone holding the post for longer than five years. To provide comparison, the average tenure of a CEO is somewhere close to ten years.

It seems unsurprising that the education sector is failing to deliver the outcomes required when the leadership, direction and ethos change with such frequency. Particularly when education policy is often tainted by the personal experiences of the senior person in charge – the “it didn’t do me any harm” effect.

When interest rates were placed in the hands of the Monetary Policy Committee in 1997, the rationale was to remove political interference and to focus instead on long-term stability and growth. What we see now is a group of experts, bringing different views, coming together to achieve a consensus for the benefit of the country’s economy as a whole.

There feels little, more important to the future prosperity of the country than the education system. Having spent time in and around schools over the last twenty years, the biggest complaint is not perhaps what one might believe – funding, but the overwhelming sense of disorientation and fatigue caused by the multiple initiatives and changes in direction from above.

If we are serious in reinventing the education system in the country, if we believe that it has a fundamental role to play in the future success of the country and the economy, then it requires us to think differently about the way in which policy is set and how we create a single sustainable and stable approach to our education system.

The obvious, but perhaps unpalatable, answer is to take policy out of the hands of government and to place it in the hands of a panel of experts drawn from academia, education, business and other areas and overseen by a cross party group of MPs and with overall accountability to the Secretary of State. Build consensus on our education policy for the long-term, remove personal bias and create stability.

The reality is, that it would take a brave and courageous government to hand away one of their main political bargaining chips. But in turn that begs the question;

Is our education system there to serve the careers of politicians, or to serve the country?

The future of work is human

If I had to list four things that bring out my inner geek, they’d be:

Work
Technology
Psychology
Education

I can’t remember the dates of any historical events, my knowledge of sports and sporting prowess is limited and if you want to know what stocks and shares to invest in…..buy the ones I’ve just sold. But give me any of these four topics and I’ll talk, ignorantly but passionately, for hours.

Each in its own right is a things that stirs the proverbial loins, but what about the point where all four intersect? Is there a relationship between them?

We know that technology is changing the way in which our children interact with the world. It is also starting to change the way in which they learn and work at school. So what is going to be the impact on the world of work when these young people get to employable age? Is technology changing the way our brains work and function and what do we need to think about in how we design work, teams and organisations?

Are we already starting to see the impact of the way that we use technology on our behaviour in the workplace? Our choices, decision-making, attention, concentration, speed of communication?

Late last year the CIPD started a piece of work to explore the future of work from a variety of different angles. The aim being to move the debate on from the normal, often predictable themes and to take a different approach. There are a number of work streams and groups exploring all sorts of angles, you can read more about it here.

As part of this, I want to look at these questions. To go beyond the “robotisation” arguments and look at the relationship between human performance and technology from a psychological and behavioural perspective, the good, bad and indifferent.

And this is where I need your help.

If you’d like to be part of this work, or if you know someone who you think might be, then I’d love to hear from you. Ideally I’d like to pull together a group of people from a range of backgrounds to exchange ideas, thoughts and theories with the view to presenting the findings at a “Big Tent” event in October.

There is no specified time commitment, geography is unimportant and I haven’t even worked out the process (yet). I just want to bring together curious, passionate, thoughtful people to help explore the themes and ideas. So if that sounds like you, if this piques your interest, then get in contact and lets see where the conversation takes us.