Closing the skills (and expectations) gaps by David Price
Sian Jones / 03 Sep /

I recently facilitated a lunchtime discussion, in London, on behalf of the Manpower Group. The event was part of a series called ‘The Human Age’, built upon their excellent report, ‘Entering The Human Age’. The major focus of our session was upon Generation Y (and Z - essentially those aged 16-25) and what is increasingly described as a ‘talent crisis’.

Manpower’s Talent Shortage Survey 2015 estimates that, globally, 38% of employers are having difficulty filling jobs. The key factors behind this shortfall include a lack of applicants, a lack of technical competencies, a lack of experience, and a lack of ‘soft’ skills.

Although only 14% of UK employers are having difficulties filling jobs, those attending the event (HR people from a wide spread of major employers) seemed to confirm those contributory factors. So, how have we got to this position? I would offer two explanations: firstly, we’ve divorced formal learning from the world of work; second, our brightest young minds no longer look to follow a traditional career path.

As someone who regularly works with schools and colleges - in the UK and in Australia - I’m frequently reminded of Seymour Sarason’s assertion that ‘the best way to prepare young people for the world beyond school, is to put them in that world, as often as possible’. The advent of the PISA international comparisons of literacy, numeracy and science skills has led to a relentless focus, by successive governments, upon the core skills of English and Maths, in the UK and elsewhere. Tony Blair’s target of 50% of young people going to university triggered the ‘academisation’ of learning. Filling in worksheets replaced opportunities to learn through projects, outside the classroom. Vocational training has progressively been starved of either investment or respect (despite the continuing shortage of skilled trade workers). Is it any surprise, therefore, that the biggest shortage of talent (according to manpower) lies in the skilled trades sector?

There’s a telling quote from Laszlo Bock, Senior VP at Google  on the growing mismatch between preparation for employment and the actual needs of employers:

““Beware. Your degree is not a proxy for your ability to do any job. The world only cares about — and pays off on — what you can do with what you know (and it doesn’t care how you learned it).

And in an age when innovation is increasingly a group endeavor, it also cares about a lot of soft skills leadership, humility, collaboration, adaptability and loving to learn and re-learn. This will be true no matter where you go to work.

These highlighted so-called ‘soft’ skills are the ones that get sacrificed when the sole focus of education becomes preparation for the written test, rather than the acquisition of practical, real-life skills. It’s one of the reasons that both Google and Ernst & Young now say that they ignore qualifications when choosing new employees.

But if there are problems on the supply side, there are even bigger challenges on the demand side (remember the biggest cited difficulty in filling jobs was lack of applicants). Increasingly, enterprising school and college leavers are choosing not to seek employment, but to create their own jobs. My presentation identified at least five reasons why, from their perspective, smart Gen Y/Zers aren’t applying to your company:

  1. It’s never been easier to work for yourself - knowledge process outsourcing sites like UpWork and make it easy to become a micro start-up. You can even start the process while you’re in school or college. And we’ve finally reached the point where the place you work from doesn’t matter.
  2. Your network matters too much for you to give it up - think about it: when most over-40s were 18 our social network could be counted on a few hands. For Gen Y, their network is global, large, and the basis of collaborative work.
  3. Every business has to be a social business - in last year’s Randstad survey of Gen Y/Z, doing meaningful work matters almost as much as the salary they’re paid. This generation are looking for much more than a set of values and a CSR programme. If they can’t find a sense of fulfilment in an employer, they’ll create their own.
  4. Why join the 87%? - Gallup’s last global survey on employee engagement found that only 13% of workers would describe themselves as engaged. Today’s young people have higher expectations of being engaged by their work, and are more likely to find that running their own projects.
  5. You’ve more chance of being replaced by a robot - the human age is also blending into the automation age. By 2030, 47% of the world’s current jobs could be replaced by a robot, or artificial intelligence, or automated software. Ironically, some of the jobs that can’t currently be filled (think drivers of all descriptions) could be fixed by automation (for example, driverless cars, trucks and trains)

So, how can companies respond to both supply and demand-side challenges? As we discussed at the event, if organisations are unhappy about the way young people are being prepared for the world of work, they have essentially two options: 1) work with education providers - and government - to make sure the right skills, experiences and dispositions are being developed, or 2) hire based on attitude, not qualifications, and provide your own learning programmes.

But that’s only half the battle - retaining young talent requires a fundamental re-alignment of values, structures and culture with the expectations of young people. In a recent blog, Dom Jackman, co-founder of Escape The City - a consultancy which helps reorientate disaffected corporate employees - provided a neat graphic illustrating the current gap.

Closing the skills gap is a challenge that occupies the minds of many human resources directors. Closing the expectations gap has had rather less attention paid to it. We need to change that.


David Price is co-founder of We Do Things Differently, a UK culture change practice and a senior associate at the Innovation Unit. Twitter: @davidpriceobe