· 9 min read · Features

Talent Management: Untapped potential - Britain's missing talent

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Mary Cowlett looks at how groups who have been traditionally marginalised by business could help plug the UK's skills gaps.

In the face of rising unemployment, it seems counterintuitive to dwell on an impending skills shortage. But according to the UK Commission for Employment and Skills' (UKCES) latest Working Futures 2007 to 2017 report, published last January, sectors such as hospitality, education, health and business services are all set for future growth, signalling a need for talented people.

Some two million more new jobs will need to be created to keep up with demand, but Britain's population is ageing. Retirement is set to take millions out of the workforce and the number of people under 24 is set to decline by 12% by 2020. So where are these people going to come from? According to Mike Campbell, UKCES director of research and policy, "more jobs will be highly skilled, with the most significant increases needed in higher level managerial and professional roles".

Is UK plc in a talent deficit? Perhaps not as much as we think. Analysts (see right) are saying HR directors need to change how they look at what talent is, and where it comes from - and this includes putting greater weight on the disabled, disengaged youth and older people. HR magazine is calling these people 'Britain's Missing Talent' - but do they have the potential to make a difference to the UK's skills gaps? We assess what contribution these people can potentially make and ask why HR professionals are not doing more to tap into this missing talent already.

HIDDEN REGIONAL TALENT

Overall, the size of the available workforce in the UK is shrinking slightly. But according to the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, Scotland faces a greater demographic challenge than England. Last October, Scottish Business in the Community launched a Scotland's got Talent campaign to encourage businesses to spot talent where they might not normally look. Campaign manager Maree Drury says: "It's about finding innovative, creative and cost-effective ways to nurture existing employees' talents and skills in a way that also benefits disengaged young people and the long-term unemployed." In April, this involved hosting a Talent Summit with the Scottish Centre for Healthy Working Lives in Edinburgh. One of the attending companies, Scottish & Southern Energy (SSE), has partnered with Barnardo's to run a Youthbuild programme, providing social skills training and work experience for hard-to-reach young people aged 16-23. The firm is also dedicated to growing its own apprentices. SSE programmes manager Gillian O'Reilly says initially there was some hesitation because of unwarranted preconceptions about young people. Now, however, the firm is committed to running the programme across all its UK locations by 2011. "Working with young people has been a really positive experience for us and has allowed us to draw from a previously untapped resource to fill our recruitment needs," she says.

DISABLED PEOPLE

The figures: According to the 2006 Labour Force Survey, there are 6.9 million disabled people of working age in the UK, representing 19% of the population. Only half of these are employed, compared with 81% of non-disabled people. Of the 2.4 million disabled people on state benefits and not in work, nearly a million would like to work.

Other issues: As the incidence of disability increases with age (44% in the 50-to-retirement age category), this raises questions about employers' attitudes.

Fact from fiction: "Some employers underestimate what somebody with a disability can do," says Liz Sayce, chief executive of the disability network Radar. Some organisations are reluctant to employ blind people in office roles, when all that may be required is some extra IT. Others are happy to employ those whose disability is visible, such as wheelchair users, but baulk at hiring people with conditions such as epilepsy or diabetes, fearing their condition may deteriorate. Some employers still integrate occupational health checks with the recruitment process as a risk-adverse way of screening disabled people out. Sayce argues that HR should play a bigger role in supporting line managers. "People would be much more confident about employing people with disabilities if they knew there was somewhere they could go to get consistent support and advice if they hit an issue," she says.

Daniel McManus, who is deaf and joined the InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) in 2007 as an accounts assistant, is now a full-time income auditor. He believes his peer group is often marginalised by lack of awareness training. "I think the biggest obstacles are communication and ignorance, both on the part of employers and deaf people," he says. Acknowledging that many deaf people, for whom English is a second language, seek out roles where they are less likely to be face-to-face with customers, he highlights some of the barriers when looking for work. These include ads that only give contact phone numbers and refer to a requirement for a sign language interpreter in interviews. Conversely, he cites how, on joining IHG, he was given a vibrating pager in case of fire and is supported in using email instead of the telephone to communicate with clients and colleagues.

"IHG always allows me room to develop my skills freely so that I can feel more confident working here and there is a good sense of equality," he says. As a result, McManus recently won a Work Skills award and his direct employer, the Holiday Inn London Kensington Forum, received the Outstanding Achievement award at the London Local Employment Partnership Awards.

Talent quota: High

FINDING GRADUATE TALENT

As recruitment budgets get squeezed and the number of graduate vacancies drops - by 5.4% this year, according to the Association of Graduate Recruiters - the temptation for employers is to focus their activities on the top tier of UK universities and ignore the graduate talent elsewhere.

In March, lobbying group London First and recruitment consultancy FreshMinds Talent launched Leading London, designed to introduce employers to students from the capital's nine post-1992 universities (formerly polytechnics). Now being piloted at London Metropolitan University, it involves a student and tutor-nominated survey that identifies final-year undergraduates with outstanding business potential.

Last summer, the 30 winners who passed the selection process had the opportunity to meet employers including Credit Suisse, KPMG, Lloyds TSB and BT as well as receiving CV advice, interview coaching and career mentoring from FreshMinds. FreshMinds marketing manager Sophie Murray says: "It's a way for top employers to discover outstanding talent from a diverse range of backgrounds, nationalities and life experiences without putting in a huge investment. It's notoriously hard for employers to reach these excellent candidates without this sort of diversity initiative." The scheme has won the support Lord Bilimoria, founder of Cobra Beer, who was himself a student at London Metropolitan University.

FINDING LOCAL GOVERNMENT TALENT

In 2002, as part of government initiatives to modernise and raise standards in local government, the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA) launched the National Graduate Development Programme. Designed to attract ambitious graduates looking to fast-track their careers, it covers four key components, including placements within local authorities and post-graduate study for a diploma in local government management at Warwick University.

Programme manager Malcolm Craig says: "Before, there was a perception among graduates that accessing the sector was only possible through a sector-specific capability, such as being a social worker or planner." Nearly eight years later, 554 graduates have been through or are currently participating in the two-year programme, 90% of whom are still pursuing a career in the public sector with half in middle-management roles.

The attraction for local authorities is that financial backing from the Government enables them to identify best fit candidates more readily, at minimal cost. Karen Milner, organisational development consultant at Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council, says:"IDeA does all the advertising and sifting to get high-calibre people on to the programme, while we get graduates doing high-quality work which helps with their development and progression in leadership roles." Last year, demand for placement candidates from local authorities went up from an average of 85 to 110. The programme has attracted more than 2,000 graduate applications, a 15% increase on 2007/08.

LONG-TERM SICK/UNEMPLOYED

The figures: With the Government announcing that all 2.6 million people who claim incapacity benefits will have to undergo a 'work capability assessment' by April 2013, employers could be facing a huge new pool of potential recruits. Indeed, according to the DWP's Pathways to Work initiative, which aims to help those with long-term health and disability issues, over two million current claimants want to get back into work.

Other issues: This group includes many long-term unemployed whose skills may be out of date. Some may have never worked at all. In addition, there are concerns about the pressures this initiative may place on people with mental health conditions brought about by being excluded from the job market.

Fact from fiction: In 2008 the Government announced it would double the budget given to its Access to Work scheme, which provides advice and funds towards work equipment, adapting premises, transport costs and support workers for those whose health or disability affects their work. Moreover, the DWP expressed its intention to explore how the scheme 'can be more responsive to the needs of claimants with fluctuating conditions such as mental health problems'.

Falkirk-based environmental recycling specialist Redeem has been working with partners such as the Scottish Prison Service and Caledonia Clubhouse - an outreach centre for people with mental health issues - to develop positive recruitment practices towards ex-offenders and the long-term unemployed for over six years. "The main reason is that it's the right thing to do, and it gives existing staff a sense of pride," says the firm's chief executive, Jamie Rae.

However, the practice has also bought visible business benefits, including a boost to the firm's reputation, which helped seal a new contract with Boots. With a staff of around 80, typically 10%-15% of employees come through these routes, with much depending on who is available and willing to work. Successful applicants are rated on their suitability for work rather than their qualifications and provided with training, ranging from forklift driving to IT skills and business systems. Highlighting that barriers are as big as people make them, Rae underlines that the initiative is not timely or costly, but rather leads to the recruitment of motivated and committed staff. "Employing people who have been out of work for long periods tends to engender a lot of loyalty, reliability and a good attitude to work," he says.

'Chris', who joined the firm in 2006 having spent seven years unemployed and claiming sickness benefit, agrees. "There's no stigma here, people treat you just as you are, so I get a lot of pleasure," he says. Having bumped up his hours from 10 to 30 a week as an accounts assistant, he adds: "It's good for my health and my confidence".

Talent quota: Medium

ELDERLY PEOPLE

The figures: In the UK in 2008, there were 6.6 million workers aged between 50 and state retirement age compared with 5.15 million in 1998, while the number of workers aged 65 and over is also growing.

Other issues: Rising life expectancy, healthy ageing trends, pension poverty and the projected decline in young people mean it is clear the working population is becoming older.

Fact from fiction: Chris Ball, chief executive of The Age and Employment Network (TAEN), adds that wider economic pressures mean that a growing number of older people will also need to work. "At the moment, the dependency ratio between those who do work and those who don't work is three to one. By 2025, that's set to shrink, so that for every two people employed there is likely to be one person older than 50 who is either retired or economically inactive," he explains.

However, claims made about older workers (all disproved) are rife. These range from myths stating that they tend to take more sick leave, are not physically capable and less able to learn, through to misunderstandings about insurance costs. Pressure groups including The Employers Forum on Age (EFA), Age Concern and Help The Aged are still campaigning to abolish the default retirement age introduced in 2006, which allows employers to force anyone 65 or over out of their job on age grounds. A spokeswoman for the EFA says: "For many people of all ages, work is their social life and gives them a purpose in life, which has been proven to make them healthier, less of a drain on the NHS and the benefits system."

To increase age diversity, Coca-Cola Enterprises has employed a number of older people from a variety of backgrounds, including former builders and window-fitters who have retired or been made redundant. In the past year this has included 23 staff aged between 56 and 60, and 18 workers in the 61-67 age bracket, most of whom have been recruited as soft drinks merchandisers (SDMs). European diversity manager Catherine Webb says: "It gives us people who have experience of different parts of industry and a different outlook that helps us tap into the 'I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing' generation and those who have drunk Coke for 40 years or more."

Bernard Pickering, who worked for the firm for 20 years as an engineer then retired for 18 months to care for his disabled wife before returning as an SDM last year, says: "There is a lot of job satisfaction as no one day is the same and you meet a lot of different people". He adds: "The flexibility of my hours is brilliant and I just have to give work a call if my wife suddenly has to go into hospital for any reason."

Roger Wray, 63, who joined Coca-Cola Enterprises in 2003 as a part-time tour guide and is now an assistant to the manager of the on-site education centre in Wakefield, explains how his role has allowed him to transfer and develop his skills as a former police traffic sergeant giving lectures on road safety. This includes forging links with outside organisations such as York and Huddersfield universities to promote the firm in a Chemistry at Work programme. "My line manager has always allowed me to develop my role to its fullest potential," he says, adding: "In 2009, it is recognised that older people still have much to offer the working environment. I call it having life skills."

Talent quota: High.