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Talent shortage – don’t be silly! We’re just not prepared to develop our people

The latest UK Labour Market Outlook from the CIPD and The Adecco Group based on a survey of over 2,000 employers confirmed continued growth in demand for labour. As with all positive news it was quickly followed by a cautious tale that employers are finding it more difficult to find the right people.

The drop in the number of applicants per vacancy across all skills level (low, medium and high) statistically supports this view, held by 61% of employers surveyed. Unsurprisingly, in terms of sector and demographic, employment growth appears to be particularly strong in business services and in London and the South West.

Good people are hard to find particularly when you’re trying to recruit a stranger for a role with a skills set requirement as long as your arm! But what about all those wonderful people already recruited who clearly demonstrated the skills and behaviours you previously thought desirable? Are these not the very people who understand your culture, customer base and the idiosyncratic ways of your service delivery model? Are they not the street-wise people who know how to leverage support from colleagues around the business and from suppliers in order to fulfil a customer’s ad hoc demand?

When reviewing the capability of existing talent it’s easy to pinpoint the skills they’ve not yet acquired or had the opportunity to demonstrate and to focus on their most recent mistakes. Unlike new recruits, existing employees ‘have known history’, but sadly this is often used to discriminate against their progression. Conversely, new recruits have zero history and that which is on show has been ‘air-brushed’ to a questionable level of attractiveness.

The focus and energy expended on recruiting new people is akin to the excitement of ‘cradling in’ new customers at a time when your existing customer base lies under-developed. The art of the possible is always greater with fewer factual constraints! But why look to the lottery of the unknown before exhausting the potential that already exists?

Talent shortage or not, every business leader has a duty of care for the development of his or her business, which can only be achieved through the development of people. However, our own surveys confirm line managers to be poor at prioritising the development of the people they lead.

How focused are leaders on the development of their talent pipeline, those people on whose shoulders future success lies? How diverse is the investment in learning and development in targeting and retaining older employees, people in more specialised disciplines or mothers returning to work after maternity leave? And, are people being supported with the most appropriate development opportunity for them and the business?

Of course, through expansion and natural wear and tear there is always a need to look externally for new talent. Now is not the forum to look at recruitment practices, however suffice to say that the time and effort expended on securing the best candidate should represent the start of a development journey rather than the end of a recruitment process. More often than not, the candidate, once onboard, becomes just like any other employee whose whole talent remains latent.

A recent CMI survey confirmed the growing demand from managers for pre-prepped young talent entering the world of work. Ironically, with such demand, so few are prepared to invest in offering opportunities to help make this a reality. The survey found that:

  • Less than 30% of companies interviewed offered placements

In our experience line managers fail to offer the support to interns and placements believing they have more important priorities, usually set implicitly from on high. Consequently, the experiential learning and benefit for both parties is limited. As with the failure to develop existing employees this not only leads to early disengagement and disaffection, but also severely compromises the future capability and capacity of the business to compete.

Unless a clearly identifiable academic characteristic or skills set is much sought after for a particular role a degree can no longer be the differentiator it once was.   Yes, it may confirm a certain level of academic achievement but it doesn’t follow that this makes people any more prepped for the world of work.

Likewise the MBA, once seen as the pinnacle of business qualification for ambitious high-fliers already in work, it exemplifies a qualification that no longer carries any gravitas. Like the university degree it’s lost currency in an overcrowded market place.

Qualifications are no more than a blunt managerial instrument applied in recruitment. Like much investment in education and training, it feels like the right thing to be doing even without understanding its real utility.

At a time when 15% of workers are over qualified for their job and fewer degree-qualified roles exist than there are students graduating, it seems ridiculous that employers should demand even more qualifications. Since the introduction of league tables in schools and universities, our educational model is assessed on students’ grade attainment rather than their ability to problem solve, critically analyse or galvanise people. When a system encourages conformity of thought over diversity, demanding more qualifications is not the answer.

Our focus needs to embrace school leavers. Those people who haven’t excelled in academia or who either haven’t the financial security to go on to higher education or see no value in attaining a speculative degree. They’re just as likely to have the endeavour and innate skills to prosper in the world of work as anyone else. There is no evidence to suggest that their innovative, commercial or people skills are any less than their graduate counterparts.

So rather than asking for extra qualifications why not welcome all young people arriving at the world of work via different pathways, with open arms and a demonstrable commitment to their future development. Let’s provide them with a level of experiential training that blends business skills development alongside their day job. Let’s create an environment in which people want to learn, relate their learning to their workplace and then convert this learning into practice.

Let’s not restrict development, particularly for young people, to an individual’s functional discipline. A failure in academia is of a system that forces students to make academic choices too early in life that restrict their choices for life. Development programmes need to offer a wide yet relevant business curriculum that expand horizons and promote increased opportunity. As a minimum these should cover the complexities of leadership, financial awareness and customer engagement.

Let’s ensure that development programmes replace ad hoc training days and where senior sponsorship actively endorses people development rather than passively refers to it as a strategic pillar. Let’s promote line manager engagement and accountability for people development and seek the support of Human Resources rather than subrogating it out to them.

We need enthusiastic and capable people entering the world of work with practical experience of how it works. This can be achieved by businesses offering internships and work-placements. From these early experiences young people can begin to understand the challenges of the commercial world and the complexities of leadership from the inside.

All businesses want to recruit the very best talent for their organisation, but it’s what they do with this talent once on board that is critical. Recruitment is the start of what should be a long lasting and fruitful relationship in which the talent you recruit is developed far beyond its initial capability.

Recruiting locally is becoming more important nowadays. Since Norman Tebbit’s ‘get on your bike’ generation of the eighties, fewer people, particularly those with young families or who remain emotionally connected to their hometown are prepared to uproot. This is a much to do with personal preferences of ‘millennials’ with a greater sense of community living than ‘baby boomers’ as it is to do with the uncertainty of working in large corporates. Let’s face it, why uproot the family to take on a role that may be redundant or re-located before you’ve even unpacked. It’s a big ask unless you’re hell bent on living in a specific location or working for a particularly iconic organisation.

Building a good reputation locally for investing in the development and promotion of local talent can only be a win/win. Engaged employees can be great ambassadors, extolling the virtues of the working environment and of their own opportunities to develop. Such PR creates more demand for emerging roles and regular vacancies.

People have a psychological need to be developed and to feel that their contribution is both valued and valuable. Those who feel ‘invested in’ are more likely to be engaged and contributing to a higher level than those who feel taken for granted. To be competitive, and therefore more productive, we need to create a skilled and confident workforce by giving people the tools to perform to the best of their ability within their role and to develop their potential to fulfill future roles. In developing people to be the best they can be we are making our business more competitive and more resilient to whatever the future may hold.

This article was prepared for Raconteur – January 2019

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