Employability matters more than skills

Amidst all the talk of Gove and the Government; a drive to go back to a better yesterday of rigour and tough exams I keep hearing employers speak less about a baccalaureate of 5 GCSEs and more about employability. The old dictum “hire for attitude and train for skills” seems to be what matters most.

Last week I was in Aberdeen and Glasgow talking to people about employment and the skills agenda. We speak of unemployment across the UK but at the same time Skills For Logistics (UK) confirm that 500,000 people will be needed by 2017 to fill the void opening up with growth and an ageing talent pool – 12 per cent of the UK workforce are in logistics related activities.

We speak of youth unemployment and we allow the average age of operators across the country – that means trucks; cranes; telephony linemen and broadband fibre cables; construction equipment – to climb ABOVE 50! We speak of skills shortages to meet the renewables opportunity in the Humber and the Global Energy industry speaks of an industry wide skills deficit that WILL mean that if and when we plug the gap on the Humber they will be tempted with higher salaries in oil and gas everywhere else.

Several managers highlight the need for basic literacy and numeracy as well as technical and job specific skills that any business needs to deliver results. And yet, the consensus was that more emphasis needs to be put on soft – better said “vital” – employability skills. What does this mean?

Employability is all about motivation and a positive attitude; an ability to talk and listen; understand orders and tasks set; an aptitude for problem solving and an openness to recover from setbacks, learn from mistakes.

A manager of heavy lifting teams working in offshore energy puts it succinctly: “Can they get up and make the boat or the helicopter; stand the work at sea; work for a gaffer and in a team. Can they learn from their mistakes on-the-job?”

This week I attended a workshop of the emergent professional employability industry. There were many individuals who had impressive credentials in this tough job starved market – all too often looking for employable staff from a growing pool of unemployed people. They all agreed that employability is key so I asked how do you find employable staff?

One employability specialist who has worked on a succession of government funded work programmes – there have been countless all too confusing variations on a theme – said that it was simple: “You know it when you see it!”. Another at the same table agreed and referred to his black box of tricks and another insisted that every candidate was so different that you had to use your judgement.

Frankly, I don’t get this. If you ask a teenager to explain a video game it will soon be apparent that there are levels of performance and, they know how to meet them. So too with employability.

I spoke again with the heavy lifting manager for offshore operations and asked him what he looked for beyond attitude. He spoke of manual dexterity; common sense; an ability to deal with problems. He emphasised that you have to know someone is fit for purpose – obesity affects 25 per cent of the UK population and you can’t send someone overweight up a ladder and out to sea. You need to know if someone has dyslexia – many supervisors speak of workers covering this up with all manner of bad behaviour.

There has to be a way to move beyond a subjective interview of candidates. I am not talking of checklists or even psychometric tests. Look at pilots for a clue; ask a Formula 1 driver how they master all types of conditions – out of the car and, ask a doctor how you can practice operations without touching a patient. Simulation and simulators is the answer.

Why not look to develop an approach that harnesses the latest in digital technology to give a candidate the experience of handling a truck; a crane; earth moving equipment and, whatever else is important to a local economy. It can be done. This experience will help build self confidence that no amount of abstract workshops can. And above all, this can help an employer assess whether an individual has the aptitude and the potential to succeed. We are working with partners to make this a reality – an individual employability assessment that can help to provide experience of the world of work for a candidate and an objective insight for employers. Watch this space.


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