You should always be free to leave

I’m not sure about you, but when I think back to my early twenties I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go. I ended up studying a postgraduate and entering into the world of HR mostly based on the advice of friends and family. I figured that if it didn’t work out, I could leave and do something else. Fortunately, it turned out to be the right career.

Having seen my son entering into the world of work last year, much of his experience has been similar to mine. A vague idea of the kinds of stuff that he likes doing and is good at. Less certain about what he wants to do and where he wants to do it. But an understanding that his first job won’t be his last job and that he will work for good and employers and sometimes have to move on. I’m sure neither he nor I are particularly unique.

But imagine if the mistake you made in choosing your first job meant that you had to pay off thousands of pounds in “debt” for “training” that didn’t lead to any formal qualifications. Of course it would all be in the small print of the contract, you’d have signed to say you accepted it, but how many of us in our 20s would either read the agreements to that level of detail, or be so cynical to imagine it would all go horribly wrong so quickly?

Unfortunately that’s the case for hundreds of young people every year who are approached by companies offering them placements with prestigious brands and training that can take as little as a few weeks but result in an obligation to repay tens of thousand of pounds if they leave before the fixed term of their “graduate scheme”. These companies have been highlighted as part of a campaign by Tanya de Grunwald. The stories shared by individuals trapped on these schemes is shocking and resonates with some of the personal stories I’ve also heard, where even in the case of some of the most personal and disruptive life events, the exit fees have been applied and legally enforced.

This is very different to the study aid that most organisations offer to employees who have been in their service for a number of years. Someone who has time to understand the company and the work before making a personal choice to undertake study for a qualification and commitment to repayment in the case they leave. These are young people at one of the most anxious and vulnerable points in their lives making a multi thousand pound commitment without knowing anything about the company or the work and then being threatened by lawyers and debt collectors if they leave. And of course this disproportionately impacts those without the family support or connections to fully understand the implications of the contract.

Exit fees aren’t illegal, although you can make a good argument that they should be, and these organisations can argue they’re doing nothing wrong and that the contracts are set out and explained. And whilst client companies are willing to contract with them, then the practice is legitimatised. But in a world where big organisations sign up to the Living Wage, Social Mobility pledges and employability programmes it feels pretty incongruous that at the same time they’re facilitating a modern version of bonded labour.

Which is why, if you’re running an organisation it is worth checking out whether you’re supporting this kind of activity and whether you think it reflects the values of your organisation or whether your commitments to society stop before they come to the actions of your supply chain. If you’re interested and want to do something about it you can find out more and sign up to the campaign here.

Technical education isn’t second class

Anyone who has followed this blog for any period of time will know that I’m a massive proponent of technical education as a worthy alternative to traditional academic paths. Back in 1995 I was working as a lecturer in a Further Education college where I could see the energy and excitement that students had to vocational courses. Far from being the dumping ground of the formal education system, it was full of career minded young people who wanted to crack on.

The extension of the Higher Education system over the last two decades has fundamentally misunderstood both the desires of learners and the needs of business and the economy. At the heart of this is, I believe, an innate snobbery and superiority complex that led policy makers to believe that if every child did A-levels and went on to University it would be in the betterment of society and a high skilled society. This false belief is also why I’m also opposed to universal free higher education.

It is also why I’m delighted to see the development of T-Levels as an alternative academic route for 16-18 year olds in the UK. If you don’t know, the T-level is a technical alternative to the A-level and is a two-year college or school based qualification designed specifically around a technical profession. One of which will be HR, which I’m on the panel to help design the requirements.

One of the most challenging aspects of the T-level proposals is the 45 days work experience a student needs to undertake during their studies. If you think about it, it absolutely makes sense for employers that a young person has not only learnt the theory, but had a chance to see it applied in the workplace. But it requires employers to plan ahead for the application in 2020 and 2022 to make sure that the opportunities are available.

So my ask is this. If you’re an HR professional or business leader and you’re constantly talking about skills gaps and the lack of technical skills in the economy. Start to think ahead, explore the T-levels that are being developed, think about the opportunities that you could create, engage with local education providers and help to make this new route to qualification a success, not just in the HR field, but all the other areas that T-Levels will operate in.

As I’ve said so many times before, you can sit on your hands and complain about skills, education and development. Or you can step up and make change happen. The choice, and the resultant outcome, is yours.

Find out more here:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/introduction-of-t-levels/introduction-of-t-levels

https://youtu.be/Bv3zpEAm3sk

 

HR, job creation and an economic imperative

How focussed are you on job creation? How often do you have conversations with your Board about growth and opportunity? How often are you talking about investment in the future? Not only the capital investment, but investment in skills?

If it isn’t on your agenda, then I suggest you take a moment with yourself, take a deep breath and start to have the conversation each and every day.

We all know the state of the economy. We all know that unemployment is at the highest level for the best part of two decades. We know that youth unemployment is a social tragedy. And we know that the Government is ill-equipped and ill prepared to deal with it.

So who is going to make the difference?

Well the answer is that business is partly responsible for getting us into this mess, and we are the only people who can get us out of it. And we aren’t going to do that by focussing on cost cutting, rationalisation, downsizing and offshoring. Nor are we going to, in the long run, add value to our business by doing so.

I know that I run the risk of being called naïve here. But is chasing short-term share holder return really less naïve than building long-term structural value in your business? I think not.

We need to be thinking creatively, innovatively about ways in which we can bring new skills into our businesses, the ways in which we can train a future generation of workers and leaders to safeguard the long-term prosperity of our businesses, of our communities and of the economy as a whole.

That means investment, but it does not mean throwing cash away. Investment is about long-term value creation, which in turn provides long-term shareholder return and long-term security and prosperity for our existing and future workforces.

Think about the opportunities that exist, think about the creation of quality internships, think about taking advantage of apprenticeships, stop moaning about the lack of graduate skills and start thinking about what your business can do to train and develop the future generation. Think about taking a risk.

HR has to, HAS TO, take a lead on this. We have to be championing the needs of our businesses, being future focussed, being (dare I say it) strategic. We need to define the imperatives, formulate the convincing arguments and we need to be making them day in and day out. We are supremely placed to not only make the case, but to be the catalyst for economic regeneration.

Large, small, medium-sized, in the public, the private or the third sector. We can all play a role in this, we all need to play a role in this. Because if we don’t, then who will?

The opportunity is there, the incentive is there. The forward thinking, the innovative, the true leaders know and understand this. Success is part risk, part planning. Put the plans in place and take the risk. Step up and take the challenge.

Whether you agree or disagree, I’ll be expanding on this argument, along with Alison Chisnell Group HR Director at Informa Business Information at #TruLondon in February. We’d welcome your contribution here or there.