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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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.