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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Over a Martini with my mother, I decide I'd rather not talk Brexit

A drink with her reduces me to a nine-year-old boy recounting his cricketing triumphs.

To the Royal Academy with my mother. As well as being a very competent (ex-professional, on Broadway) singer, she is a talented artist, and has a good critical eye, albeit one more tolerant of the brighter shades of the spectrum than mine. I love the RA’s summer exhibition: it offers one the chance to be effortlessly superior about three times a minute.

“Goddammit,” she says, in her finest New York accent, after standing in front of a particularly wretched daub. The tone is one of some vexation: not quite locking-yourself-out-of-the-house vexed, but remembering-you’ve-left-your-wallet-behind-a-hundred-yards-from-the-house vexed. This helps us sort out at least one of the problems she has been facing since widowhood: she is going to get cracking with the painting again, and I am going to supply the titles.

I am not sure I have the satirical chops or shamelessness to come up with anything as dreadful as Dancing With the Dead in My Dreams (artwork number 688, something that would have shown a disturbing kind of promise if executed by an eight-year-old), or The End From: One Day This Glass Will Break (number 521; not too bad, actually), but we work out that if she does reasonably OK prints and charges £500 a pop for each plus £1,000 for the original – this being at the lower end of the price scale – then she’ll be able to come out well up on the deal. (The other solution to her loneliness: get a cat, and perhaps we are nudged in this direction by an amusing video installation of a cat drinking milk from a saucer which attracts an indulgent, medium-sized crowd.)

We wonder where to go for lunch. As a sizeable quantity of the art there seems to hark back to the 1960s in general, and the style of the film Yellow Submarine in particular, I suggest Langan’s Brasserie, which neither of us has been to for years. We order our customary Martinis. Well, she does, while I go through a silly monologue that runs: “I don’t think I’ll have a Martini, I have to write my column this afternoon, oh sod it, I’ll have a Martini.”

“So,” she says as they arrive, “how has life been treating you?”

Good question. How, indeed, has life been treating me? Most oddly, I have to say. These are strange times we live in, a bit strange even for me, and if we wake up on 24 June to find ourselves no longer in Europe and with Nigel Farage’s toadlike mug gurning at us from every newspaper in the land, then I’m off to Scotland, or the US, or at least strongly thinking about it. Not even Hunter S Thompson’s mantra – “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro” – will be enough to arm myself with, I fear.

The heart has been taking something of a pummelling, as close readers of this column may have gathered, but there is nothing like finding out that the person you fear you might be losing it to is probably going to vote Brexit to clear up that potential mess in a hurry. The heart may be stupid, but there are some things that will shake even that organ from its reverie. However, operating on a need-to-know basis, I feel my mother can do without this information, and I find myself talking about the cricket match I played on Sunday, the first half of which was spent standing watching our team get clouted out of the park, in rain not quite strong enough to take us off the field, but certainly strong enough to make us wet.

“Show me the way to go home,” I sang quietly to myself, “I’m tired and I want to go to bed,” etc. The second half of it, though, was spent first watching an astonishing, even by our standards, batting collapse, then going in at number seven . . . and making the top score for our team. OK, that score was 12, but still, it was the top score for our team, dammit.

The inner glow and sense of bien-être that this imparted on Sunday persists three days later as I write. And as I tell my mother the story – she has now lived long enough in this country, and absorbed enough of the game by osmosis, to know that 17 for five is a pretty piss-poor score – I realise I might as well be nine years old, and telling her of my successes on the pitch. Only, when I was nine, I had no such successes under my belt.

With age comes fearlessness: I don’t worry about the hard ball coming at me. Why should I? I’ve got a bloody bat, gloves, pads, the lot. The only things that scare me now are, as usual, dying alone, that jackanapes Farage, and bad art. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain