Recruiting talent for growth: Is it getting harder?

UK businesses bemoan the dearth of quality candidates when recruiting, but could theirproblem be more one of unrealistic expectations and under-investment in training?Kate Dunn seeks out opinions and solutions at our latest round table lunch

The UK does not have enough skilled workers. Fact.

The problem is not only a political football, but also an imminent economic problem as the country struggles to remain competitive alongside emerging economies such as India and China. The Leitch report highlighted the issue last year, but for businesses the problem is nothing new.

Recent research found that more than half of the UK’s businesses said it is more diffi cult to recruit skilled employees than it was fi ve years ago.

The gap frequently manifests itself in people who are expected to have the basic skills to match academic strengths. Caroline Plumb (top right), who sees many university-leavers through running research and recruitment consultancy FreshMinds, says: “There’s a real skills gap among graduates, particularly around softer skills such as selling.”

Small or medium-sized business owners often recruit fi rst- or second-jobbers and are frequently disappointed by the ability and willingness of graduates to do the everyday tasks most jobs entail. Nicole Debson, co-founder of multilingual support staff provider Appointments Bi- Language, reports: “Often they have absolutely no work experience at all, not even some offi ce experience or telesales.”

Employers aren’t asking for the world. Deborah Barnett, director of Essential Escapes, says: “When we interview someone, the number one priority is whether they are personable. Can they be articulate and deliver a high level of conversation?”

Without these basic skills, no matter what the potential employee’s strengths, they may be of little value in an offi ce. Paul McCormick (bottom left) is managing director of engineering fi rm GCA. He employs “technically brilliant” MSc graduates. But, he says, “they still don’t have those softer skills”.

So why are graduates leaving university unprepared for work? Ian Lasplace (top right), director at Call Centre Associates, believes a year in industry should be compulsory for all undergraduates. “I think it would be an eye-opener and give them the social and emotional intelligence we look for,” he says. “If you don’t have the commercial acumen or even the ability to write a decent email, it’s very diffi cult to get a on a level footing. A year in industry would be a good kick-start to their career.”

The blame game

This is a popular idea, but as Plumb points out, it begs the question of what higher education is for. “Graduates aim to excel academically and that’s what the curriculum is centred around.” However, she asks whether the problem may also be that “employers want ‘oven-ready’ graduates, but are not themselves investing on that front”.

The reason for this is largely economic. Businesses, especially smaller fi rms, cannot afford to invest in training every employee. As Plumb notes, the days of employing someone for life are long gone, making employers more reluctant to invest. Links between education providers and businesses are growing through initiatives such as Foundation Degrees and Train to Gain, but in the meantime employers are looking further afi eld.

William Berry, managing director of Net121, and Ben Hart (bottom right), CEO of digital communications agency Glass, both recruit extensively from outside the UK. Berry says: “We haven’t been able to fi nd people with the skills we need in the UK, so our development is outsourced to India and most of our creative positions are filled by people from France and Italy. I think going international is the future.”

Hart agrees: “Probably only about 30% of our workforce are UK nationals. And we’re looking at bringing in Eastern Europeans because that is where the skill sets are.”

Reap what you sow

Their solution is a popular route, but it could mean employers miss out on the benefi ts gained by investing in training. Despite the expense, greater investment means more skilled people in the working population. And workplace training can identify and solve any skills gaps within the business.

GCA’s McCormick agrees that training brings business benefi ts. “We try and train everyone, from the most junior admin assistant to our top engineers. It stimulates them and we get much more loyalty in return,” he says. The company has also taken the brave step of taking some school-leavers, then funding them through MScs. “We’ve found that they’ve picked up softer skills much quicker,” McCormick says. “They’re in the workplace and don’t mind typing a letter or opening a door, whereas the MSc grads often feel it’s beneath them.”

Gayna Hart, MD of Quicksilva, also believes training can prevent skills gaps. “We focus on informal learning,” she says. “We have ‘knowledge hours’ where people learn about something they’re interested in and then have an hour to speak about it.” Subjects range from IT to pensions and the company also has its own version of Wikipedia, on to which employees can add advice and tips, and search for help.

Many companies seem to favour such informal methods of learning. But increasingly, employers are open to other solutions.

Seeing the light

Lasplace of Call Centre Associates took “a bit of a gamble” and had someone in to carry out a skills analysis. He says: “It was a real eye-opener. I would urge everyone to do it – it allows you to facilitate a deeper level of engagement with your staff. What opened them up was that they could talk to someone outside the business – not a director.”

Technology is also playing a greater role. E-learning is now seen by many as a low-cost and time-effective way of sharing information, and is becoming an alternative to many training courses. As Kirstie Donnelly, director of products and marketing at online training provider learndirect business, notes: “Failure can often be a barrier to learning, but e-learning is a safe place to fail.” Whatever the methods, business owners have to make a commitment to training to get the most out of it.

For example, FreshMinds sets aside £500 and five days per year per person for training, choosing the courses on the basis of the needs of the individual and the business. In return it says it receives increased motivation and loyalty.

There is also a financial return. As Mike Tobin, CEO of Telecity RedBus asks, “Why would you employ someone to do a job they can’t do? If someone’s asking for training, they’re doing something beyond their job, so there’s a financial return.”

One thing many businesses do value in younger employees is their grasp of technology. Berry says: “A lot of communication has shifted to the online arena. The younger generation is far better at dealing with that, but often with the sacrifi ce of personto- person skills.”

The silver lining to the storm cloud of UK recruitment is that technology is changing the working environment. Many of the skills missing in the workforce may not even be required for much longer.

McCormick says: “We think it’s great when people use the phone, but the young guys in our company now use Skype – and the clients often want that. We now get so much work from people we will never meet. What we want from employees may have changed in 10 years.”

Views within this article were expressed at a lunch sponsored by learndirect business. www.learndirect-business.


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