The world moves fast. Yesterday’s priorities are superseded by new initiatives by lunchtime. No wonder then that we buy in the skills we need on a project-by-project basis. We’ve begun treating talent like supermarkets treat fresh produce; just in time delivery with minimal surplus. In the drive for efficiency, we’re offloading the responsibility of developing skills to others.
There are other aspects that have led us to this situation. For most organisations, the idea of restricting a vacancy to internal applicants is anathema, for a number of reasons. External applicants are key for diverse workforces. We want to hire experience from outside the sector. We’re preventing institutionalised groupthink.
However, the public sector has a number of organisations who show us why internal promotion can be better than importing talent. The Civil Service is highly reliant on organisational knowledge to provide the best support and advice to policy makers. It’s an organisation where change is so constant that organisational knowledge and experience expedites rather than obstructs changing priorities.
Another key part of the Civil Service’s success is encouraging cross-function moves. How difficult would someone in your organisation find it to move from one area to another? No, they don’t know much about the area they want to move into, or have the skills to do the job immediately, unlike an external applicant. But they know other parts of your business, your structure, your values and your challenges intimately. They maintain your organisation’s cultural memory. Beyond this, they can tackle challenges with knowledge from multiple aspects of your organisation – becoming the proverbial two heads which are better than one.
But if we think about why people leave their jobs, one thing underlies everything. They want more. For some, it’s more money. For others, more challenges; their work bores them. Self-improvement is a motivator for many; the desire to gain more skills and knowledge.
And realistically, some of these ‘mores’ are great opportunities for your organisation. Employees motivated by a desire to solve your organisation’s problems, if only given a chance. People who want to deliver their work to a higher standard, but feel they have to get a job elsewhere to do so.
Employee turnover is so often an HR metric, but how regularly are you discussing this with L&D teams? I suppose a big challenge is switching from a macro focus to a micro one. We speak on an organisational level, but as HR professionals we’re much less likely to have a ‘scouting’ role where we identify talent for new roles – this is left to line managers. And what we often see is line managers who want to keep talent in their teams, as these top players make their role easier.
So the needs of line managers are a challenge – they expect to recruit the best and keep them. Often due to badly thought out KPIs, line managers are forced to make a choice between meeting team targets or developing their employees. Add in performance incentives which often reward teams financially for beating targets and you create a culture where stagnation of talent is the norm.
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New Challenges, Old Solutions
But we’ve got a powerful tool for upskilling our workforces that is being criminally underused. It’s a method we’ve used for decades, but seem to have abandoned in favour of ‘buying talent’ from other employers.
I’m talking, of course, about apprenticeships. And it makes sense for a lot of smaller employers to be wary of taking on an apprentice. There are costs incurred just preparing to take on an apprentice, not to mention the risk of the apprentice dropping out, being entirely unsuitable or simply not fitting into a small team.
But the thing is, nobody says that apprenticeships have to be for new starters. Of course, there are financial advantages to hiring an apprentice, but if your organisation’s only incentive is being able to pay someone eight grand for a full year’s work, lack of development opportunities isn’t the biggest retention issue you need to be tackling.
Realistically, if you’re looking to use apprenticeships to upskill existing employees you’ll need to pay them at least the same amount they’re on now, whilst also giving them at least 20% of their contracted hours to train and study.
But there are huge benefits, especially when delivering higher or degree level apprenticeships. For certain skills and industries the funding contributions and employer incentive payments can be significant, and the skills an existing employee can gain through the apprenticeship programmes can be quite literally ‘money can’t buy’.
We need to promote the idea that apprenticeships are not just for kids. We’ve reached a point where everyone in the workforce is expected to learn new things, but the idea of a structured programme of education for workers older than 25.
Remember that employees are just as keen to grow and develop as you are to resolve your skill shortages. Internal progression means organisational memories are retained and shared, employee loyalty improves and informal relationships between teams are strengthened.
So what can you do?
Identify employees with the potential to fill your skill shortages. Upskilling existing staff is cheaper and more effective than recruiting new employees, and often (when taking into account onboarding and team integration) quicker too.
Employees can enter Masters level degree apprenticeships on the basis of relevant workplace experience. This means they don’t need to have completed a bachelor’s degree, although having the aptitude and commitment to complete a challenging MSc course will be key!
Raise awareness. There will be plenty of people in your workforce who want to learn and take up internal opportunities. New talent may emerge from the most unlikely of places…
Incentivise managers. It’s pretty normal for senior leaders to have some requirement to develop direct reports, but where this is applied to line managers it’s often copy pasted and fails to recognise the very different roles and responsibilities. In a world where line managers are as likely as their team members to need to look outside the organisation for improvement, a few lines in a performance review on talent is ineffective.
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