Britain’s Problem of Employability
Business Voice, December 2003
There is a strong view that the fall in direct investment in the UK is because we have not signed up to the euro. I am not convinced by that one. It may be a factor but not, in my view, the determing one. In business it is always difficult to isolate the most important factors that shape what corpoarte leaders decide to do. Equally important is the issue of employability.
We have in this country a compulsory education system for all children between the ages of eleven and sixteen. They are supervised and guided by teachers who, on the whole, are dedicated and hard-working. And yet the output is an adult population in which 19 per cent are illiterate and 24 per cent are inumerate. These figures are higher than for any other country in Western Europe with the exception of the Republic of Ireland. The editors of the red top tabloids have got it absolutely right in insructing to their journalists that they should assume their readers have the literacy understanding of ten year olds.
Why should overseas investors search for locations in the UK if they can’t recruit staff that are able to read simple instructions? An issue that is now becoming even more acute as companies in the construction, hospitality, healthcare and personal service sectors are increasingly having to recruit personnel who do not have english as their first language. In the London region, for instance, no fewer than 26 per cent of the population was born outside the United Kingdom. Issuing simple instructions in relation to health and safety issues to say nothing of getting the work done becomes a major business challenge.
But the problem gets worse than this. An increasing number of young people are now locked in universities and other institutions of higher education, reinforcing labour market skill shortages. Already 95 per cent of young people with two A levels go to university. And yet the present government is planning to raise the present figure of 35 per cent of the age group to 50 per cent over the next few years. In a period of almost full employment does this make any sense? The Labour party made this commitment when unemployment was high among young people in the early nineteen nighties. From personal experience I know that many young people have neither the motivation nor the interest to be at university. They are there simply because they assume it is the right thing to do. If they don’t. their fear is that they will not get a job. Here business could make a fruitfull contribution to the debate by emphasising to young people that degrees are not the be all and end all and that management career paths are not the exclusive preserve of university graduates. Particularly when those degrees are in media studies and disciplines of a similar ilk.
But the problems of employability in the UK go deaper than simply an acute shortage of labour market skills if the country is to attract direct foreign investment. There is the acute issue of the attitudes and behaviour of those already in the jobs. And it is here that Britain’s competitive position is being eroded. Not simply by the United States and our competitor nations in Europe but by, inreasingly, India and China. The latter overtakes us to become the fourth largest economy in the world next year.
It is the attitudes of large sectors of the labour force that accounts for the productivity gap between ourselves and many other countries. The work ethic has been eroded by a strong culture of employee cynicism. There is a growing distrust of large employers and of our line managers. The result is that we try to get with doing as little as we possibly can. We withold any ideas that we could offer our companies for continuous improvement and product innovation.
But in my opinion, the malaise goes further than this. It is an attitude towards work that encourages unreliability and lack of punctuality. A ‘don’t care’ culture which condones staff not turning up for work, so that they are not bothered if this lets down their colleagues and the companies they work for. An it is this, in my view, that accounts for the huge increase in so-called stress related illnesses. In the old days in the Soviet Union, you could not go on strike. If you did you got sent to prison. And so employees expressed their resentment by taking days off, claiming they they could not work because they had back-ache. Today in the UK it is stress. Overstreched doctors are probably more than willing to write out sick notes if it reduces the waiting room queues. And there are plenty of those out only too ready to join the queues.
The patterns seem to be particularly bad in some parts of the country rather than others. The North East appears to have greater problems of employability than the East of England for example. Why, then, should foreign investors go there than say, locate outside Beijing?
The media in Britain does not help. It promotes role models that personify the destruction of the work ethic. Tried listening to Radio One lately? Do a content analysis of TV chat show and late night humour and underlying themes of cynicism iconoclasism come up again and again. Only the virtues of third-rate celebrity are praised. The result is that the only ambitions of those with the best brains in the country are to be TV weather presenters. Failing that, anything will do so long as it is media based and that it keeps me out of wealth creating manufacturing.
So what is to be done? For a start the education system, including the universities, need to start producing employable people.But also, business needs to start re-branding itself. Through the actions of a small minorty of corporate leaders, it has gained for itself a reputation for selfishness and greed. Only by developing convincng agendas of social ethics will companies be able to re-gain the trust of their employees. Once this is re-established, we can move up the agenda to takle those periennial issues of innovation and productivity. If we don’t, there are plenty of employers in India and China that will.
© Professor Richard Scase