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New Government, new workplace

So the Conservatives came out on top, winning the right to govern alone and implement their policies unchallenged. But what does this mean for the workplace? Asks Ann Pickering, HR Director at O2.

I, like many other HR Directors, started to think about what my own priorities might look like. As HR Director and board member of a major UK digital telco, there are three issues currently topping my agenda, which I believe warrant serious focus from businesses and government alike as we look ahead to the next five years. As it should, the issue of youth unemployment featured heavily in the Conservative manifesto, which pledged to abolish long-term youth unemployment, support NEETs, and make sure that all young people are either ‘earning or learning’. This focus on young people reflects the party’s recognition that young people are a key driving force in our economic recovery. And yet while last week’s ONS figures showed the employment rate to be at a record high, the British Chambers of Commerce has warned that youth unemployment is still three times as high as the national average. For me, as HR Director of a leading digital business, this discrepancy simply makes no sense. Young people have the natural digital skills at their fingertips which businesses in every sector are crying out for; we can’t afford to waste that talent. At O2, we employ thousands of people under 30, so I see the first hand the benefits that young people have on our business every day, with their enthusiasm, digital skills and refreshing new perspectives.

If businesses don’t do more to attract and support the UK’s young talent and, in doing so, future-proof their workforce, they put themselves at risk of falling behind. That’s why I’d like to see businesses working more collaboratively with local schools, communities and careers services, to inspire young people about the opportunities their digital skills can bring. Apprenticeships are increasingly being recognised as a valuable route into the workplace – and a way of building the skills our country needs – by young people, parents, businesses and politicians alike.At O2, we’ve run a successful apprenticeship programme for many years, meaning I can speak with absolute confidence about the incredible value they bring. It’s been fantastic to see them have such prominence in all three leading parties’ manifestos.

In particular, it’s great to see that David Cameron has pledged 3 million new apprenticeships – music to the ears of any employer who sees the real benefits of apprenticeships. But it’s not all about the numbers. Thanks to the investment of government and businesses to create and deliver quality programmes, we’ve seen the start of a real shift in attitudes towards apprenticeships. But the reality is there’s still a way to go before apprenticeships are seen as being on a genuinely even footing with university degrees, and are widely accepted as a legitimate alternative for all.That’s why I’d like to see all businesses continue with their efforts to create high quality apprenticeship programmes. That also means working with careers services to change the dialogue in schools and ensure that more young people understand the value of this career path.

As one of O2’s female board members and a mother of two, it was incredibly refreshing to see so many women appointed as cabinet ministers last week. Over the last few years, the Lord Davies’ review has triggered a renewed focus on the debate around diversity in the workplace from politicians and businesses alike – and it’s about time.But we won’t achieve sustainable and long-lasting change by focussing our efforts exclusively at board level.

While we’re moving in the right direction, thousands of women are yet to see evidence of this progress in their place of work. Our own research revealed that almost half of women (48 percent) believe all the decision-makers in their company are male and a fifth (17 percent) believe it’s impossible to reach a senior position as a woman – so even with the 25 percent women on boards target looking achievable, we’ve still a long way to go before we can boast genuine workplace equality. The 25 percent target must be regarded as a starting point, not the finishing line. We also need to make sure that we don’t neglect the thousands of women around the UK who don’t work for FTSE 100 companies, and who are working outside the scope of the Davies report.

Over the next five years, all of us – businesses and government – need to turbo charge our efforts to support women at every level, to ensure that every UK business has a genuine pipeline of female talent climbing the ladder, and fulfilling their ambitions and potential. As the Conservatives turn their vision for the next five years into a reality, we as businesses all have a responsibility to work with them to make sure that our employees, both current and future, are getting the right support and opportunities to progress, enabling us to secure a bright future for the UK workforce.

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