Inclusive innovation: Tapping into hidden talent pools for business growth
We talk to Jane Gratton, Deputy Director of Public Policy at the British Chamber of Commerce (BCC), about investing in long-term workforce development, tapping into global talent, and prioritising inclusivity through diverse hiring initiatives.
Given your vast experience, what advice can you offer to entrepreneurs in the current challenging market?
The economic shocks that have buffeted UK businesses over the past couple of years have led to tougher trading conditions and intense competition for skills. Despite being faced with these challenges, business leaders have demonstrated outstanding resilience, but their recovery, productivity and growth are being held back by a critical shortage of workforce skills.
The Open University’s Business Barometer report, delivered in partnership with the British Chambers of Commerce, reveals that the ongoing skills gap is having a knock-on effect on firms’ ability to operate profitably, fulfil their order books and take on new work. It’s also affecting employees’ mental health with 72% of organisations saying that skills shortages have increased workload on existing staff.
In a candidate-driven market, it’s vital that organisations have a long-term plan for developing people and skills. The workplace is changing rapidly, and it is now less likely that your existing teams have all the skills they need for the future – or that candidates will be a perfect fit for your job vacancy. Core skills, attitude and ambition are things you can build on. Can you work with schools, colleges and universities to help develop a pipeline of future talent for your business? Are there people in your team who can be trained up for your job vacancies? Could flexible working help you attract more candidates? Your local chamber can provide impartial advice, and help you link with a broad range of training options.
The UK economy has taken a knock over the last few years. What can businesses do to get back on a level playing field and become stronger than ever?
Recovering from economic setbacks takes time, patience, and an outward focus. Business leaders need to maintain their resilience, adapt to changing circumstances and seize growth opportunities when they arise. As well as investing in your workforce, having a global outlook can help you create new trade opportunities in markets around the world. Boosting the skills of our workforce includes supporting our leaders and managers. Taking time to look at best practices and innovation, both within and outside your sector, connecting with peers and mentors, and equipping yourselves with the skills to help your people thrive, is an essential investment.
The recently published Business Barometer report indicates that an alarming 73% of organisations in the UK are currently grappling with skills shortages. What caused this skills gap and how can businesses close it?
Whilst skills shortages are not new to employers, multiple shocks to the economy since 2020 have exacerbated the problem. Changes in migration patterns, increases in long-term sickness, and more people leaving the workforce through early retirement, have left employers with hard-to-fill job vacancies at all skill levels. In addition, an increase in digitalisation, automation and the Net Zero imperative are creating demands for new knowledge and skills in the workplace that are in short supply.
Education can play a critical role in helping businesses upskill and reskill their workforce to close the widening skills gap. There are now many flexible training options to suit the needs and circumstances of leaders and their teams. It’s crucial that organisations act early to plan for skills and work with providers who can offer the agile delivery their people need. The Open University offers online learning alongside face-to-face education on some programs – and modular approaches that offer a shorter and more tailored solution. Businesses can similarly sponsor someone to do an Open Degree where employees can access a range of modules in different subject areas, allowing them to build the qualification around the needs of their role as it evolves through the programme.
Does the UK need to embrace immigration to fill the ever-widening skills gap? And if so, will rising visa fees exacerbate these shortages?
When job vacancies are urgent, and when employers are training and have done all they can to find the skills they need locally, the UK immigration system must be there to support them. However, smaller firms without in-house resources can be deterred by bureaucracy and complexity. Unfortunately, the recent rise in visa fees and surcharges – an increase of 66% in some cases – will put the system further out of reach for many SMEs.
Where national shortages are crippling sectors of the economy, firms must have access to skills and labour from outside the UK. We need a pragmatic approach to immigration policy. The system must be accessible and affordable. The Shortage Occupations List – or any system brought in to replace it in future – has to reflect the reality of skills shortages that firms experience on the ground.
The Government can also help alleviate the skills gap by introducing more flexible, short-term mobility options that don’t require expensive sponsor visas – such as an expanded broad youth mobility scheme.
What can UK organisations do to grow their own talent and engage with the hidden talent pools?
The Business Barometer report reveals that more than half of organisations (54%) lack specific skills initiatives targeting underrepresented talent pools, which include individuals such as care leavers and ex-military personnel. By prioritising underrepresented talent pools, organisations can harness a vast reservoir of untapped potential.
Investing in underrepresented groups not only helps to bridge skills gaps and promote greater inclusivity in the workforce but it can also unlock a wealth of diverse talents, experiences, and perspectives that bring you closer to your communities and customers.
BCC has launched a new UK-wide Workplace Equity Commission to find out how SMEs can be supported to create a level playing field for everyone in the workplace. Our Call for Evidence is inviting views, ideas and best practice case studies on the challenges and opportunities facing employers. We’d love to hear from your readers. A great example of an organisation engaging with hidden talent pools is the partnership between the Open University and the John Lewis Partnership.
Through this collaboration, the OU has helped to deliver the Care Experienced Scholarship, a programme which offers four full undergraduate scholarships to young people aged 25 and under, who have spent time in care and have faced significant barriers to entering and succeeding in higher education. Those successful in applying for the scholarship can study flexibly, including spreading their learning over more than three years if they wish, to fit in with family or existing work commitments. As well as helping to future-proof the John Lewis Partnership’s workforce, the programme aims to improve the lives of those who have grown up in care.
How do you see the skills shortage playing out in 2024 and beyond?
Despite best efforts from organisations, there are still around a million job vacancies in the economy and 3 in 4 firms are struggling to recruit. We also have an ageing workforce and employers are worried about losing skills and experience that they cannot replace. The Business Barometer report reveals that despite this threat, 77% of organisations don’t have any written annual plans to prepare for people exiting the business. This could make an already serious skills shortage even worse. We’ve called on the Government to bring more people back into the workforce and to use the tax system to help firms invest in skills training.
The reality is, however, that competition for skills will intensify over the next few years. Firms who are planning for skills, and investing in their workforce, will not only become an employer of choice for job candidates but will also be in the best position to maximise growth and profitability. Now is the time for entrepreneurs to future-proof their workforce. Upskilling from within can be a strategic response to address the challenges posed by an ageing workforce and the demand for new knowledge and skills as the workplace evolves. People are likely to have to change careers several times during their working lives and lifelong learning will become essential for us all. By developing a high-performance culture of continuous learning and development – upskilling employees, training managers, and supporting young people through work experience and apprenticeships – they’ll be boosting the resilience of their business in the face of any future economic turbulence.