Skills shortage? Employers should deal with it

Train your employees.

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.

Photograph: Getty Images

Claire Richardson is VP at Verint

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The Brexit elite want to make trade great again – but there’s a catch

The most likely trade partners will want something in return. And it could be awkward. 

Make trade great again! That's an often overlooked priority of Britain's Brexit elite, who believe that by freeing the United Kingdom from the desiccated hand of the European bureaucracy they can strike trade deals with the rest of the world.

That's why Liam Fox, the Trade Secretary, is feeling particularly proud of himself this morning, and has written an article for the Telegraph about all the deals that he is doing the preparatory work for. "Britain embarks on trade crusade" is that paper's splash.

The informal talks involve Norway, New Zealand, and the Gulf Cooperation Council, a political and economic alliance of Middle Eastern countries, including Kuwait, the UAE and our friends the Saudis.

Elsewhere, much symbolic importance has been added to a quick deal with the United States, with Theresa May saying that we were "front of the queue" with President-Elect Donald Trump in her speech this week. 

As far as Trump is concerned, the incoming administration seems to see it differently: Wilbur Ross, his Commerce Secretary, yesterday told Congress that the first priority is to re-negotiate the Nafta deal with their nearest neighbours, Canada and Mexico.

In terms of judging whether or not Brexit is a success or not, let's be clear: if the metric for success is striking a trade deal with a Trump administration that believes that every trade deal the United States has struck has been too good on the other party to the deal, Brexit will be a failure.

There is much more potential for a genuine post-Brexit deal with the other nations of the English-speaking world. But there's something to watch here, too: there is plenty of scope for trade deals with the emerging powers in the Brics - Brazil, India, etc. etc.

But what there isn't is scope for a deal that won't involve the handing out of many more visas to those countries, particularly India, than we do currently.

Downing Street sees the success of Brexit on hinging on trade and immigration. But political success on the latter may hobble any hope of making a decent go of the former. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.