Longer term planning and investment — and top management involvement in upskilling programmes — is required to sustain the jobs market, writes Kyran Fitzgerald.
Resilience was the key word at this year’s Ibec human resources conference held Croke Park. Up until recently, employers have benefited in many cases from a ‘goldilocks’ economy and have been able to draw on reserves of skilled manpower.
The picture is now more complicated.
Hiring is now something of an uphill struggle while, at the same time, firms are being forced to reinvent themselves as business relationships come under pressure due to adverse developments caused by the ongoing Brexit saga and the slowdown in international trade.
Human resources departments are having to deal with plenty of flak. One interesting development is the renewed focus within organisations on staff retention as opposed to reliance on new hires.
An interesting address dealing with the challenge of how best to draw on existing resources within an organisation was delivered by Professor David Collings of Dublin City University. He pointed to the huge gaps that now exist on the skills front, one that is now being experienced by almost 85% of leaders in business.
The obvious approach is to throw a lot of resources into a recruitment campaign.
However, even if it is possible to fill the gaps, can one be sure that they will be filled by the right people?
Not so, says Prof Collings. He points to recent research suggesting that high performers in their existing organisations do not tend to succeed in making the transition to a new organisation. He reckons that people transferring have only a 50% chance of hitting the ground running.
As for the rest, it can take three to five years to achieve the level of performance they enjoyed in their former job.
It turns out that employee turnover — particularly among those in challenging jobs — carries a hidden cost tag alongside the more measurable costs associated with the hiring process.
All of which suggests that we really should be cherishing are own and not always be assuming that the faraway hills are greener.
Claire McGee, head of education at Ibec, is keen to emphasise the importance of lifelong learning both as a means of motivating and ultimately retaining the services of key employees.
It is worth noting, by the way, that people’s assessment of who is and who is not a ‘key employee’ should itself be subjected to a serious reassessment. Often, important people in an organisation go unheralded by managements which are inclined to conclude that those at the top of the organisation are the fonts of all wisdom.
Ms McGee regrets the fact that less than one in seven of Irish employees are engaging in some form of lifelong learning and it is older employees who are missing out most. This is important as the over-50s are usually those who have accumulated the least in the way of formal education.
It is also clear that many of those engaged in upskilling programmes have not done so in consultation with careers advisors. In other words, they may not be focusing in the areas where improvements are most needed.
It is only fair to point out that the Government has put a considerable effort into the creation of apprenticeships and it has been working closely with business organisations with this in mind.
However, more work needs to be done to involve top management in the business of upskilling the workforce.
This is an area where trade unions and management can work closely together. For many years now, they have worked successfully in certain sectors under the umbrella of the Skillnet programme.
Ms McGee, however, is cautious about the extent of the progress achieved to date. In her view, the approach is lacking in cohesion and should be integrated more effectively.
One problem is that people tend to deal with short-term crises and in the process, neglect long-term planning. The failure to make the most of existing resources is imposing huge cost burdens.
One estimate is that skills shortages are now costing Britain at least £2bn annually.
The cost in Ireland runs into the hundreds of millions of euro.
Prof Collings points out that employees are far more motivated and in a position to perform to their full potential if they are given a sense of purpose. He talks about creating a “line of sight” from the person’s role to the broader purpose.
He gives the example of a medical devices company engaged in the production of equipment which enhances, even saves lives.
Evidence that one’s employer is interested in investing in one’s future as an employee can only serve to boost that sense of purpose.
One problem in today’s world is that the current generation of highly mobile top executives may have little knowledge of the workforce they happen to be leading at a particular point in time.
They may be drawn to investing in new technologies without realising that so-called soft investments in the workforce, permanent and transient, can also generate huge returns.
In some cases, the attitude appears to be that if you invest in training up people, the recipients of this investment will simply walk out the door.
What is required, in other words, is greater imagination and higher levels of generosity on the part of those charged with leading our organisations.
As the labour market tightens, the message is clear: invest in your people or look on as your organisation loses momentum.
In a competitive hiring market, only the wealthiest will win out. The rest face the prospect of a constrained future due to growing gaps in the ranks.