4 Things About Skill Shortages

In a recent blog I looked at some of the research and narrative around skill shortages. 

We have the necessary numbers of graduates from most of the disciplines* where shortages are reported, but a lack of those with relevant work experience. I won’t repeat the previous blog except to round up that some of the main reasons for shortages seem to be:

  • Graduates perceived to have the best qualifications are working in sectors other than those they’ve studied for
  • The rest are passed over, so end up working in other sectors and in lower skilled work
  • Companies are too specific about what they want
  • Definitions of employability are inconsistent
  • Roles aren’t marketed effectively
  • Less investment in training

Most of these are fixable by either better recruitment or workforce planning, or more realistic assessment of what we have and what we need. I don’t think the general discussion around skill shortages is helpful. As I’ve written before, no recruiter ever got fired because there was a sill shortage, so the individual circumstances around unfilled vacancies never get scrutinised. 

In fact there are four things that get lost in this conversation that I believe could benefit from greater scrutiny:

  1. Maybe we’re past peak hiring. Could well be that most vacancies now are for ‘nice to haves’ rather than ‘need to haves’, and that’s why they are unfilled. The budget for recruiting is signed off, give vacancies to a third party recruiter, or run adverts, and see if someone exceptional turns up. 
  2. Is this linked to the wider productivity puzzle? Many firms say they lack the capacity to take on more work without extra resource, but this might well arise from organisational and process inefficiencies that management struggles to identify or solve.
  3. When companies say that they can’t find the skills, are they really talking about employability. These aren’t a list of skills to be ticked off a CV, but instead we are talking about a range of values, attitudes, abilities, desires, social awareness and intellectuality that we are looking for people to exhibit. Many of these are picked up once working, or are adapted by the surroundings and culture of the organisation. It isn’t easy to find them.
  4. Maybe we need to redefine what we mean by skill. The recent BBC series Britain’s Hardest Workers bought a game show element to minimum wage work that is deemed to be lower skill. A mixture of manual labourers and knowledge workers undertook low pay tasks and failed to perform to expected standards. After each activity – whether it was sifting through waste, producing food or making small car parts – we were told that these tasks were actually quite highly skilled. That they were stressful, demanding and pressurised. They needed people who were fast, accurate, consistent, technology savvy, focused and determined. None of this sounds particularly low skill, nor that it should be rewarded with below subsistence pay. In fact, if I listed these descriptions on a job ad you might reasonably conclude that I was looking for someone on a fairly high salary to undertake a fairly senior and responsible role


*Some sectors – one obvious example is healthcare – do have a gap between the people available and those we need. How we bridge that gap is a different debate and one that I think is not well served by being lumped it in with general skill shortage narrative

Graduates, Award Winning Apprenticeship Schemes and Social Mobility

I recently watched a webinar involving Capp, Sonru and Nestle about the benefits of strengths based video interviewing for graduates. You can read a summary on Capp’s blog here.

Many things stood out for me about the benefits of both video and strengths based assessment – and there was post hiring process research to show that the methodology was popular with candidates too – but two main outcomes that struck home were:

  • Improvement in social mobility
  • Increase in female recruits for technical disciplines from 22% to 67%

And part of the reasons for these outcomes were:

  • Unlike traditional competency approaches, this methodology doesn’t rely on past experience
  • As assessors don’t see an application form they have no pre-conceived ideas on the candidate they are assessing

I don’t think anyone will deny that there is much under utilised potential amongst our young emerging workforce and the challenge is to bring opportunity to people from all backgrounds and skill sets. That there is potential for unconscious bias when it comes selection, even at this level, maybe a taboo subject but with recent research indicating that hiring on gut instinct, or intuition, is on the rise, it is something that we need to be aware of. Any process which reduces the chance of interviewers and assessors entering the selection process with pre-conceived ideas must be good.

But this isn’t all just about graduates. The increasing importance of apprenticeships, and the need to harness the potential of school leavers, is being recognised across industry with the concept of apprentices being the new graduates being discussed at the recent Association of Graduate Recruiters conference.

At this point I’ll raise my hand and say that there’s a reason that I’ve referenced the work of Capp – I’ve been spending some time with them recently, finding out more about what they do and helping on social marketing outreach. I’ve always been interested in the benefits of strengths based interviewing versus more traditional competency methods and how this could lead to more diverse, harmonious and creative workplaces.

Last night, together with client Nestle, they won the Recruiter Awards for Excellence 2014 in the category of ‘Best Apprentice/.School Leaver Strategy‘. It was given for work on Nestle’s ‘Fast Start’ programme, a 3 year ‘learn while you earn’ scheme providing school leavers the chance to work in a salaried role while studying for a degree in Professional Business Practice. Capp had worked with Nestle defining indicators of success and designed an assessment strategy to identify potential without relying on limited previous work experience.

A main aim of the scheme was to increase social mobility – to reach out to candidates from a more diverse social background and ensure they were not disadvantaged from progressing – and it turned out that 78% of candidates successfully reaching the assessment centre were from a state school, with 60% of candidates having neither parent completing a university degree.

As part of an ongoing project to better understand social mobility they have recently launched a survey – ‘Understanding Social Mobility’ – which explores social mobility from the level of the individual, rather than group or social class. Hopefully this will help shape an approach that empowers the individual.

You can complete the survey here – I’d really appreciate it if readers of my blog could contribute to the research too, both in a personal capacity and by sharing with people they know.

I’m sure that social mobility will dominate the conversations around the world of work over many years. The need to recognise talent, potential and capability irrespective of background and previous experience will become key to future business success.


Pity the Child Who Has Ambition…

“Pity the child who has ambition, knows what he wants to do
Knows that he’ll never fit the system others expect him to” (Chess)

When I blogged about youth unemployment just over a year ago I pointed out that many of the traditional lower skilled entry level jobs within the economy were now being done by unemployed graduates. The level of youth unemployment had been rising since 2001 and the level attributable to 16-18 year olds (ie those leaving school at 16) was close to 50%, with the very real possibility that many of those would never know permanent, full time work.

And when I blogged about the future organisation I drew attention to the fact that the UK is a world leader in underutilising the skills of its graduates.

Well, another week another group of articles appear in my timeline all with views on what tomorrow’s workforce need to do to be ready for work. You know tomorrow’s workforce… the one whose hard work and taxes will pay for our pensions, healthcare and the like.

First up was Allister Heath suggesting that we stop encouraging kids to go to university.  He tells us that only 5 of the 30 fastest growing professions in 2020 will require a university degree and 10 will require no qualification at all. The first three he mentions are retail sales staff, food preparation (including fast-food restaurant jobs) and customer service reps…all roles that graduates currently do. I’m guessing that business to business sales people don’t really need a degree either but having one has largely been a pre-requisite for these roles for years.

Unsurprisingly for a right of centre commentator, especially one who also speaks for the Taxpayers Alliance, it’s the State’s fault that graduates end up as baristas…as if the private sector never wanted better educated trainees. They don’t need further education, they need work experience and traineeships which the State has to enable and guarantee. So having got the kids to largely fund their own further education it now needs to be replaced by state/taxpayer funded work experience. “To many employers, university education has become little more than a signalling device, a means to filter out potential staff” he identifies.

And there’s also a strong recommendation for Gove’s sepia tinged longing for applied maths, Latin and cold showers…whereas I would have thought programming and communication would be much more important. Soft skills for a social world.

The view from the US was more optimistic and creative. Children shouldn’t be college ready but innovation ready – “We can teach new hires the content, and we will have to because it continues to change, but we can’t teach them how to think — to ask the right questions — and to take initiative”.

No longer will they be able to ‘find’ a job as previous generations have, but instead will need to ‘invent’ a job.  As Harvard education specialist Tony Wagner says:

Every young person will continue to need basic knowledge, but they will need skills and motivation even more. Of these three education goals, motivation is the most critical. Young people who are intrinsically motivated — curious, persistent, and willing to take risks — will learn new knowledge and skills continuously. They will be able to find new opportunities or create their own — a disposition that will be increasingly important as many traditional careers disappear.

We teach and test things most students have no interest in and will never need and facts that they can Google and will forget as soon as the test is over. We need to focus more on teaching the skill and will to learn and to make a difference and bring the three most powerful ingredients of intrinsic motivation into the classroom: play, passion and purpose

Clearly the view here is one of optimism and opportunity. Instead of relegating much of the future workforce to a life of shifting low paid work, and turning the clock back for education, as Heath seems to suggest, in the US article they look to Finland’s innovative economy “They learn concepts and creativity more than facts, and have a choice of many electives — all with a shorter school day, little homework, and almost no testing

Back to corporate UK and we had the Homebase example. Here you had a major company recommending that store managers make use of the free labour available through workfare to do the work that may otherwise require paid employees – with an internal document bearing the message:

How the work experience program can benefit your store.
Would 750 hours with no payroll costs help YOUR store?

So is this the ultimate future for the lower skilled workforce? A variable cost, paid by the taxpayer to provide free labour to the private sector in the hope that this may help them secure a paid assignment elsewhere?

And finally we square the circle with the latest research from the New Employment Foundation. A perfect conundrum:

Those with good graduate degrees are facing months of unemployment or free interning in order to gain access to paid work. Those with no or few qualifications are being left out in the cold


Graduates who “dumb down” their employment aspirations can find themselves stuck in low-skilled jobs for years

So there we have it. You don’t need a degree because most future jobs don’t need one…but then if you haven’t got a degree you may not be considered for the jobs that don’t need one.

And if you take any job, because work must pay…then you risk not being considered for a job that really pays.

But ultimately…it’s down to you to create your own job anyway…