Into The Millennium - A skills shortage?
Kent Messenger, May 2001
In my last piece, I queried whether there was a skills shortage in the United Kingdom. I argued that the shortage of skills that many companies are experiencing is a result of their recruitment assumptions about the qualifications and training that potential employees need to fill particular jobs. I also suggested that many companies are not fully using the skills and talents which they already have in their businesses. But the major reason why we have a skills shortage in Britain is because of a growing trend towards early retirement. A growing number of companies are finding that their managerial and professional staff are queuing up to take retirement in their early fifties. This is usually because of burnout in an economy in which we are increasingly paid according to performance by results and in our achievement of targets.
But alongside this, companies are ageist in their attitudes towards older employees and, particularly, in their recruitment practices. In many companies, there is the view that if a person is over the age of 45/50, he or she is over the hill and unemployable. I have received a number of letters from readers on this point. The Kent economy has been through a period of dramatic restructuring as both public and private sector organisations have downsized and released large numbers of older employees. A significant proportion of them do not want to spend the rest of their lives on the golf course. They see themselves as fit, available for work and keen to get jobs for the next fifteen years or so.
A case in point is Mr Kevin Scrase who has written to me. He is fifty two years old and was 'forced' to take early retirement through company restructuring. He held a senior management position with more than one hundred staff reporting to him. On leaving his company, he thought he would have little difficulty in finding another job. He enrolled on a six week computer course and updated himself with various leadership, accounting and information technology skills. He registered with five employment agencies. He has also responded to job adverts in newspapers, online and through other sources. A year later, he is still unemployed. He has received a total of two calls from the employment agencies and for all jobs for which he has applied, he has received standard two line letters of rejection.
I doubt whether Mr Scrase is the most unemployable person in Kent. Otherwise he would not have held his senior management position for more than twenty five years. I cannot believe that he does not have an ability and expertise that would greatly add value to an organisation in the public, private or voluntary sectors. At fifty two, like the overwhelming majority of men and women of his age, he has a further life expectancy of between thirty and forty years. Can the economy afford to exclude those in their fifties and sixties from the labour market? Will company pension schemes be able to afford to support Mr Scrase and others like him in the future? Will the state be able to support those who are not in company pension schemes?
But the costs are even greater than this. There is evidence that early retirement among men in their fifties can make them ill. A privileged minority may be able to enjoy world cruises and relaxing days on the golf course. For those who choose early retirement, they have never had it so good. But for those who do not make this choice and who want to work but find themselves unable to get jobs, isolation and depression can very easily set in. This generates added costs for an already over stretched state financed health and welfare system. In the United States, there is no retirement age and, equally, in the Scandinavian countries, people regard themselves as economically active until their late sixties and early seventies. The early retirement culture in Britain seems only to have kicked in during the 1980s when companies were faced with a more competitive environment and were compelled to cut payroll. But this has now led to a culture where ageism has become more pronounced. In a sense, this is rather odd because, in an information economy, people are less likely to be worn out in the way in which the steel mills, coal mines and factories exhausted workers in the industrial age. The irrelevance of age is perhaps best demonstrated by the ways in which business entrepreneurs carry on working (because there is no one to sack them) and by those, who find themselves made redundant in their early fifties, proceed to set up their own successful small businesses.
And so what is to be done? The ageing of the population, coupled with a dramatic decline in the number of younger available workers, will compel companies to reassess their assumptions towards the capabilities of older people. Management gurus are constantly telling us to 'think the unthinkable'. Corporations spend megabucks on 'awaydays' to encourage their senior managers to 'step outside the box'. More often than not, they return the next day to do their jobs exactly as they have always done. Perhaps, instead, they should transform the awayday rhetoric into real time working reality and begin thinking the unthinkable by reassessing their age-old assumptions about their staff. It could then be that the much heralded complaint about skills shortages would quickly evaporate. It could also be that 'burnout' would be avoided if companies realised the growing potential of internet technologies and allowed more flexible, remote working. The long working hours culture that we have in Britain is very much a function of 'if he/she is not on site, he/she is not working'. In any case, there is growing evidence that remote working enhances staff productivity. Further, 'thinking the unthinkable' could encourage senior managers to realise that their staff who they consider as 'dead wood' may be the result of uninspiring, demotivating leadership. In other words, the cause of problem is with themselves and not with others Put some of these ideas into practice and it may be that the twenty five percent productivity gap between the United States and the United Kingdom could be narrowed.
© Professor Richard Scase