The shape of the UK workforce has been changing for years and, even before covid-19, the pace of that change was accelerating. It is very difficult to call immediate future developments as the economy continues to haul itself back to life whilst at the same time coming to terms with the realities of Brexit, but continued uncertainty and rapid change are pretty safe bets.
One development that is very clear is the rapid expansion of solo operators. The percentage of self-employed in the workforce has grown from 12% in 2000 to 15.3% in Q4 of 2019 but, much more significantly, all of this growth has come in the category of trading alone or with a partner but no employees. There isn’t a direct correlation from these data to the growth of the gig economy, but more solo operators means more scope for working in this manner.
Why start a piece on attracting and retaining suitable talent in this way? Simply because these data are indicative of the evolving world in which companies are engaging with the people who work for them – be they employees, contractors, partners, service providers or whatever. They’re factors that need to be kept under constant review as companies shape and continuously reshape the workforce they need in order to succeed in the business world of the 2020s.
In this post we’ll discuss this evolving world, and there are many other related factors to consider, to which we will return in subsequent posts. What will make employers attractive in the post-industrial age? What will be the essential skills and characteristics of the future workforce? How will talent management and career development work in a world of constant changes of career, employment and skills? And what about the people who can’t adapt to the new world of work? What does the future hold for them?
Changing employer needs
The starting point for a discussion of the changing face of talent attraction and retention must be to consider what employers (an increasingly inadequate word when much work is done by people who aren’t employees, but we’ll go with it for now) need from their workforce and how that is changing. One of the biggest challenges every organisation faces – at any time, but even more so today in light of the pace of technological change – is to be able to look at its future direction and needs without being unduly constrained by the paradigms of the present.
Each business will need to decide for itself how it is going to take advantage of developments in artificial intelligence, IoT, business automation and other areas. Whichever routes they choose, their decisions are likely to have a significant impact on the profile of their workforce. Manual and repetitive clerical tasks will be most at risk from automation. AI may displace some administrative roles and transform others. The shift towards a greater need for strong cognitive skills and good emotional intelligence is real, because these are the human attributes that machines are furthest away from replicating: they determine and shape the roles that will remain uniquely human.
It’s essential that organisations have a view about what this future looks like for them. It doesn’t matter if they get it wrong – they almost certainly will. What does matter is that they’re considering the shape and nature of the near future and that this informs recruitment and retention decisions. They need to be planning in the paradigm of the future – not of the present.
This paradigm needs to take other factors into account too. If remote working wasn’t on the radar screen at the start of the pandemic, it is now, and questions that will become important for many organisations will include asking whether new hires are willing and competent to make a success of new working patterns? To be more self-sufficient than they needed to be in the past? To become integrated into a different kind of team, one that might only meet up in the workplace once a week or even less frequently? Indeed, to operate within a culture that is different from the one you were recruiting for before March 2020?
In short, employers should be constantly evaluating their changing needs in terms of the skills and attributes of the people they are going to require for their journey into the future, and the aptitude of those people to changing ways of working.
And then there’s the question of the basis on which these people will be employed – or perhaps a better word would be “engaged”.
The workforce in the business ecosystem
The statistics quoted at the top of the article underline one very important shift in the workforce. Any company today, and even more so in the future, might be contracting services from across an ecosystem of independent operators, third party providers large and small, outsource partners and a range of other constructs as well as from their own employees. And that’s just the human service provision angle. The technological developments we’ve already mentioned are playing an ever-increasing role in getting things done, so much so that there’s a growing need for businesses to have visibility of what their overall resource provision model is, encompassing both humans and machines.
Average job tenure in the UK has stayed relatively stable over the past twenty years or so but past performance isn’t always a good indicator of the future. Most organisations are still locked into traditional structures that were designed for an increasingly irrelevant industrial age. As they drag themselves towards new business models, where the watchwords are flexibility, agility and networked collaboration cutting across organisational boundaries both internal and external, these structures will increasingly unravel and the more flexible workforce that is already emerging will become an ever-greater reality. And with that goes greater flexibility in how services are delivered and paid for, more use of the wider ecosystem, more people working a portfolio – of customers or even of jobs – and, inevitably, less security. For employers, the battle for talent applies across the whole of this ecosystem: it is going to require a new mindset, a new way of looking at the workforce, and new win-win (two-way) methods of engagement for this battle to be won.