Time to skill up

OsneyMedia Employee Engagement, Leadership Development, Talent Management Leave a Comment

Dean Shoesmith, PPMA president, joint executive head of Human Resources, London Boroughs of Sutton and Merton, argues that developing your workforce means individuals are more transportable both inside and outside the organisation

Key learning points

  1. HR requires a wider understanding of economic principles
  2. The public sector is a target group for the skills-for-life initiative
  3. Of local government workforces, 11 per cent have no qualifications
  4. Increased skills have mirrored an increase in commitment

National research indicates that 23 per cent of adults in Britain have poor basic skills (skills-for-life) and of these 500,000 are local government employees

In January 2008, the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave a keynote presentation expostulating that for the UK to continue to contend in the hyper-competitive world economy the nation’s workforce had to step up their skills base. Brown argued that there was danger of the UK slipping behind emerging economies such as China and Brazil. What Brown didn’t know at the time was Lehman Brothers was on the brink of collapse and that such fiscal disintegration would act as a catalyst for global economic disaster.

The ensuing meltdown of the banking sector in 2008 sent the world economy – and that of the UK – into recessionary chaos. The corollary of this is that we’re facing a level of national debt not witnessed in the UK since the Second World War.

“Slash the training budget!” is often one of the first cries to be uttered during such difficult times when organisations contemplate retrenchment. However, as Brown said, talent and skills development is even more essential now if we are to survive. But with Tony Travers, economist from the London School of Economics, predicting a gloomy 30 per cent reduction in public sector funding, finding funds for learning and development is going to prove tricky. Cutbacks will sadly result in job, and people, loss; however, I believe that developing workforce talent to make people more skilled and more transportable in the labour market is the key to unlocking a significant problem. Harnessing talent effectively will help to transform the way services are delivered and could provide a significant opportunity for change for the better for our customers – which, in the case of local government, is our residents.

For HR and OD practitioners like myself, it’s not simply grappling with the normal business of people management – a wider understanding of economic principles and business transformation will be essential prerequisites to steering a clear trajectory through what is, from a public sector perspective, a daunting and uncertain future. Economic principles, in particular the Beveridge Curve, measure job vacancies, skills and unemployment. The curve measures the uptake of new jobs by those people eligible to work in the labour market. If the skills set within the labour market (talent pool) isn’t sufficient to meet the needs of the new roles, it leads to long term unemployment – a phenomena currently being experienced in the US and something the UK needs to avoid to ensure sustainable economic recovery.

To provide context on the skills deficit at present, national research indicates that 23 per cent of adults in Britain have poor basic skills (skills-for-life) and of these 500,000 are local government employees. Public sector employees have been identified as priority target groups in the national strategy to improve workplace skills-for-life. Research demonstrates 16.3 per cent of the local government workforce does not have a level 2 qualification (GCSEs grade A-C for example) and 11 per cent have no qualifications at all.

A 2005 Learning and Skills Council report showed that in 2003-04, 30 per cent of working-age Sutton residents (one of my council areas) had none, or low, qualifications. The same report highlighted that the borough has the second-highest number of hard-to-fill vacancies out of any South London borough due, in part, to job applicants not having the required skills. According to data from the Office of National Statistics, more than one in 10 people in Sutton have no qualifications.

To address these issues locally, in 2006 my own council successfully bid for a small grant from the London Development Agency to address skills-for-life deficits in the council’s workforce. We appointed a project manager to address these issues within the workforce, initially focusing attention on pilot areas within the council.

One of these areas was Waste Management. This group consisted of 151 employees and 46 agency workers engaged in refuse collection and street cleaning who had been largely forgotten in other workforce development initiatives. Sutton’s bi-annual employee survey responses for this area were very low. Health and safety forms completion was poor and did not reflect the actual levels of accidents/incidents. Attendance and disciplinary issues were also significant people management challenges.

Aware of the sensitivity of launching a skills-for-life programme in this workforce we sought a provider who offered them embedded within a dedicated National Vocational Qualification (NVQ). Working in very close partnership with trade union representatives, we encouraged them to grow more union learning representatives. We also targeted the entire workforce, including supervisors, and success was measured by qualification achievement. Initially, we didn’t know the extent of the skills-for-life deficiency in this workforce, but knew there was a high level of need and equally high level of suspicion. Having laid very careful groundwork with unions and teaching providers the outcomes were very positive indeed.

The project really changed hearts and minds, and we have measured this through employee surveys to track improved engagement. A key service manager initially was not in favour of pursuing this initiative. He thought it was a waste of time, would cause extra work and said he was “too busy”. He argued they were “only binmen – why did they need to read and write?”. Now he is the programme’s0 greatest advocate and trumpets the benefits as the improved outcomes are tangible.

There has been dramatic improvement in job commitment, conduct, attitude and performance; reduced drain on manager and supervisory time; improved customer service (measured by resident satisfaction surveys); increased talent development into other jobs (eg, higher level supervisory work); and positive societal benefits for our employees with life outside work, such as being able to help their children with their homework. One employee, who was perceived to be ‘trouble’, has changed his point of view since going through the programme. He has progressed into a supervisory position and is being developed for other possible future opportunities. Another programme participant has been elected as Employee-Side Secretary for Unison within the council, a position of responsibility he would not have dreamed of before starting the programme.

Managers and employees alike are advocates for the programme and have promoted the benefits in front of an audience of other council employees, including senior managers. Gaining commitment at all levels in such a project is crucial to its success. The financial cost to the organisation has been small but the need for passion, tenacity and commitment has been significant and this will have to be maintained at all levels to sustain progress in this area. Our work to improve essential skills, and services to our customers, has won a number of awards including the National Training Awards 2009 and Skills for Life awards for 2008 and 2009.

Much more important than the awards is the learning gained at a number of levels – individual, team, organisational and regionally. As a wider piece of organisational development we have collaborated with our neighbouring councils to improve individual and organisational learning to increase our collective talent pool sub-regionally in South London. I contend these lessons should be more widely applied to the transformation of public sector services – whoever and wherever they may be provided by over the coming years.

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