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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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