Blog Article

Time to slay the skills shortage chimera?

Posted by Mark Thompson

Mark Thompson

I had a rare opportunity recently to get away from a desk and screen and go on a site visit to a high technology company to see how things are done in the real world. Amongst the plant and equipment was a testing facility at the cutting edge of test facilities. I had a look inside – it certainly looked impressive – but all was quiet. It gets used, apparently, but only occasionally because the firm doesn’t have the capability in-house to operate it and so they bring the skilled engineers required to run it from another company. My guide agreed that relying on a third party to play a critical part in design and production wasn’t ideal but it was down to ‘skills shortages’ over which his firm had no control. Such shortages of people with engineering and technology skills have been a constant feature of the British economy for decades and the typical engineer seems to have remained male, in late middle-age and preparing to retire in droves ever since I can remember. Frankly, I’m beginning to think that skills shortages are as much the fault of employers as the education system and culture they like to blame. I’ve got quite a bit of evidence:

Planning: few companies make effective assessments of talent needs required to deliver long-term goals. Yet it is certainly possible to make reasonably reliable assessment of the kind of skills we’ll need in the future. Just take a look at Eric Pelletier’s blog post of 30 April (The Bagel Effect) about the impact of digitisation on the workforce: sure, it’s not entirely clear what the future will look like, but we know for certain that we’ll need more data scientists to make sense of the ever-expanding amount of information at our disposal; we’ll need more people who can integrate various elements of technology and consequently fewer people who stick to the traditional mechanical, electrical and civil engineering disciplines. It’s easy to say with hindsight, but clear that the likes of Kodak, HMV and EMI tried to ignore or litigate against the forces of digital rather than embracing the opportunities it has brought for business.

Recruitment criteria: there’s a Homer Simpson mug sitting in lots of offices around the country with one of his favourite slogans of mine: ‘If at first you don’t succeed, then lower your standards.’ It reminds me of an oil and gas company in India that lamented the lack of geophysicists but they couldn’t justify to me why a minimum of 20 years’ experience was required. ‘Why not 10?’ I suggested. Here in the UK, blue chip engineering firms set up fairly arbitrary barriers to entry to their on-line application sites: physics A level is a popular one (quite a rare qualification these days even among engineers, and especially scarce in the female population.) Others insist on an upper second degree and most use a battery of arcane tests with a high failure rate to dissuade people from applying. What’s going on? We need to attract people, not find ways of putting them off!

Reward: reward is a powerful way of incentivising employees to develop the skills and careers that their employer needs. The traditional pay structures in many organisations still encourage people ill- suited to management roles to take them on in order to progress; they don’t pay more for those with particularly critical skills or penalise those who remain wedded to legacy skills. Making changes in this area is always difficult, but reward is communication and people will respond if the message is that developing and deploying skills that are needed for the future is important to their employer.

Clearly, skills shortages are a very real and difficult problem, but am I alone in thinking that we could do a great deal more to manage and mitigate the risks that this implies for our businesses?


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