How do you Solve a Problem like… Low Productivity and the Skills Gap?

As restrictions are being put in place, and walls are going up, I can’t help thinking that from a talent, skills and resource perspective we are somehow missing the point or swimming against the tide.

These days, the world seems like an ever more confusing place. Every day and everywhere you look it feels like things aren’t making sense. But while we are all distracted by the big issues being placed front and centre by our chosen news stream, the world of work is quietly evolving beyond recognition.

In the UK, there is constant debate about the skills gap, both now and for the future; conversation often turns to the challenge of attracting young people into the industries and sectors where they are needed the most; there is a huge push on apprenticeships, including the launch of a new levy system; and there is currently sharp focus on the “Gig Economy” and “Zero Hours contracts”, which are being vilified and arguably smothered at every turn.

At the same time both at home and further afield there is a clear movement towards protecting national borders and sovereignty.

So, let’s go back to the question of missing the point.

Firstly, just think about the context of what is going on in the world of work. There are a number of factors combining, including:

  • High employment in some regions (including mine);
  • Low employment in other regions;
  • Relentless progress in artificial intelligence and robotic process automation, which is fundamentally changing nature of some jobs (and making others obsolete);
  • Shortages of skills in key industries and sectors;
  • Oversubscription to certain high value, knowledge based professions;
  • Disconnection between traditional education and the requirements of business;
  • Democratisation of information and knowledge;
  • Globalisation of B2B and B2C products and services;
  • Generational disconnection between the present and the future;
  • The cost of real estate, environmental considerations, the drive towards flexible and agile working;
  • Utilisation of mobile technology and virtual models/space;

The list goes on and on.

Then let’s just think back into history a little:

  • Imagine a world before cars. The Ford model T was launched in 1908.
  • The first section of M1 Motorway in the UK was opened in 1959, and by 2016 there were 31.7 million cars registered on the road in the UK.
  • The World Wide Web was invented in 1989, and Web 2.0 has only really been with us since the turn of the Millennium (Facebook launched and expanded, roughly, between 2004 and 2006).
  • Desktop PCs (or equivalent) were certainly still not on every desk in the early 2000s. Now we cannot function without them (unless we are using something even better).
  • The first iPhone was launched in 2007 – Smartphones and tablets have become ubiquitous since.
  • Before e-commerce took off (i.e. within the last 20 years) you needed to rely on a mail order catalogue if you wanted an item delivered to your home.
  • And eBay now means that you can complete your collection of generation 1 Transformers by purchasing a mint (boxed), 1984, “Jazz” toy from the other side of the world (or maybe not).

Despite attempts in the developed world (notably the UK and USA) to hold on desperately to the old world, there is so much momentum, that change is inevitable.

At a fundamental level the market, and ultimately consumers, drive the demand for change.

So, although you might want retain national identity and sovereignty, you also want to drive a Japanese or German car; you want to eat Thai food and watch Holywood films on the 47″ TV set made in Korea; You want to holiday in the Caribbean and emigrate to Australia (probably). Consumer demand has driven globalisation, and pretty much everyone has played their part in it.

It is possible that my eldest child might start her first real job in 10 years’ time. More realistically perhaps she will go through further and higher education and start working in about 15 years’ time – the change that we are likely to see in that time is incomprehensible. My youngest child is 6 years further behind. What will the working world look like in 21 years’ time? Can you remember how different it was 21 years ago?

Industry and commerce are now, essentially, globalised. There is no way back form that, just like there was no way back from the motor car. I think that China, for one, recognises this, as shown by its ambitious “one road, one belt” project – which seems to be an attempt to develop infrastructure to help the physical world catch up with the virtual world.

There are some exceptions, but the direction of travel and momentum are abundantly clear to anyone who is willing to accept that change is inevitable (and history shows us that it is). The destination (or route for that matter) is less clear, and anyone who says they can predict the future is lying.

There is, however, a huge difference between claiming to predict the future on the one hand, versus planning and preparing for the changes it will bring on the other – whether that is with a view to making the most of the opportunities that arise, or a defensive play to get as much as possible out of the current situation and exit at an appropriate time. Planning for change is essential.

This can be viewed at a macro or micro level (or pretty much anywhere in between). Individuals need to think about their own future; parents will want to think about the future of their children; organisations and associations will need to plan their own structure and chosen markets; and nations and regions will endlessly debate, and never agree, over what should be done.

I think that what is happening in the USA (it is 2017 as I write) is really interesting. The macro political position is there for all to see, and I won’t comment any further on that other than to say that the primary mantra from the leadership is harking back to the past – i.e. to “make America great again” (we’ve heard that before of course).

At the same time, some of the most interesting ideas about workforce optimisation are coming out of the USA. Two examples that have particularly caught my eye are the holacracy experiment at Zappos, and the “on-demand staffing platform” of Wonolo. There are others as well, including on demand providers of outsourced facilities management micro-services, and of course some of the tech giants. Not all of these will catch on, or work, but the point is that industry and commerce in the USA is progressive and in many respects leading the world in terms of the future of work allocation, skills based on-demand resourcing and flexible / agile working – at the same time as experiencing what some might say is a potentially regressive macro political and social environment.

The market is driving change towards flexible, on-demand and task based labour models – while policy in the UK seems to be about stifling that evolution.

The problem is, we’re still trying to organise things like we always have. At best, we (society) are planning for the present. We are not planning for the future, and as long as that continues we will struggle to address the productivity and skills gaps.

Please do leave a comment and join the conversation if you find this interesting or infuriating. I’d love to hear from you either way.

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