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Skills shortage? Employers should deal with it

Train your employees.

New Statesman
Photograph: Getty Images

Most of us don’t think very hard about the basic skills we use in work each day – success in the modern workplace tends to be based on proficiencies and experience. Skills, however, are the foundation of proficiency and the OECD statistics released last week showed that the skills of the UK’s workforce are on the wane. The findings provoked furious finger-pointing in political, educational and business circles, but noticeably absent from the debate were the executives and small business owners for whom lack of skills in the workforce is not a theoretical problem, but a day-to-day issue of productivity and competitiveness.

Absent too was any sense of how the problem might be resolved. Even if we could magically conjure up the best school system in the world, it would take more than a generation for the workforce to renew itself completely. If business leaders are to ensure that our workforce has the skills to keep Britain’s companies internationally competitive, then we must accept that we cannot rely upon the schools system to turn out work-ready employees. It’s not the place of employers to teach basic literacy and numeracy skills but unwillingness to invest in the workforce will only exacerbate the problems that employers face.

The answer to a skills crisis is not to simplify jobs until they can be done by workers with no skills. That may have worked in the past, but consumer expectations and the service industries (wherein the majority of the UK’s low-skilled workers are employed) are changing, and those changes will require the opposite approach – building up workers’ skills so they can fulfil more complex roles. If business leaders respond proactively to these changes, then it may be that circumstances will bring about at least a partial solution to the UK’s skills shortage.

The first stages of such a process can already be observed taking place within large customer service operations, such as those serving banks, retailers and utilities. The way in which consumers interact with organisations like this has changed fundamentally, most obviously in their use of multiple communication channels (web, phone, social media etc). This immediately demands that staff handling enquiries have a much broader skillset, and a much greater degree of flexibility. In addition, consumers now have much higher expectations of how quickly requests ought to be resolved. In many industries, it’s no longer an option to have each step of a process carried out in different parts of the business. The only way to achieve the speed of response that consumers demand is to reduce the number of personnel involved. This means that any individual employee may handle an enquiry through any one of five or six communications channels, and then be required to collaborate with colleagues and use their own initiative to pursue and resolve the request itself.

Fulfilling multiple tasks in both customer-facing front-office and clerical back-office functions, employees with this type of mixed workload are often known as "middle office" workers, and are becoming more numerous. Their jobs are considerably more skilled than if workers were required to simply follow a call-centre script but they are not usually intended to be graduate positions. However, they do often require significant literacy, numeracy, problem solving and interpersonal skills, and it will do employers no good to wait for schools to improve their teaching of such skills. If they are to respond effectively to the expectations of today’s consumers, business leaders must invest in developing these skills amongst their employees. The good news is that modern eLearning and workforce management platforms make it economically viable to manage continuous personal development for a large number of employees.

This is a much greater level of investment than is normal in many service industries, but such investment is generally repaid in the form of lower staff turnover, fewer service glitches and much happier customers. In addition, a more skilled workforce is a more flexible workforce, better able to address fluctuating demands in different parts of a business, and a varied workstream allows mangers to spot those individuals who might have the aptitude and personality for leadership. Keeping track of the skills, capability and availability of a large number of staff calls for a sophisticated approach to workforce management, but the rewards far outweigh the costs. Millions of people are employed in clerical and customer service roles in the UK and a shift towards job roles with a greater degree of flexibility would make a significant contribution to building up the skills base of the UK’s workforce. That would be good for employees, good for companies, and good for the economy.