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Talent and skills – evolving the strategy – Roundtable Report

21 June 2016     London
Hosted by theHRDIRECTOR.
Chaired by Jason Spiller.

Anne Comber, People Director – Barnardo’s
Sonya Alexander, Head of Talent – Mclaren Group Ltd
Ian Dowd, Marketing Director – NGA HR
Charmyn Hall, HR Director – Oxford Instruments
Mito Mackin, Innovation and Product Director – NGA HR
Stuart Mcpherson, Learning & Development Manager, Interserve Plc (BBC)
Jane Nicholson, HR Director Talent and Diversity – Home Office
Andrew Ward, Talent & Development Director – KPMG
Michael Woodhall, Manager, Leadership and Professional Development, EMEA – Ford


The skills shortage, like an iceberg lurking in the dark, is now unavoidable; there is not one organisation in any sector that is not negatively impacted. From the disconnect between education and the workplace to reining in spend on learning and development, the lack of essential capabilities has created a mismatch between the current skills base and the reality of the requirement, for now, and the future.

Clearly, building stronger bridges with education to imbue a greater understanding of employment realities is essential to employers. Plus there’s a culture issue here, an expectation from parents, a whole legacy of ‘everybody deserves a university education’.

Michael Woodhall: Notably, we do find it harder to find Engineering and IT employees via graduate and apprenticeship routes, than people for other roles, but we’ve got a lot of advocates who go out and speak to schools and universities and we have scholarships at certain universities aligning them with our needs. There is definitely something around face to face presence. Stuart McPherson: We work with colleges and training providers to help shape some of the qualifications we know will be valuable in the workplace moving forward, for example within the engineering function where we have an ageing workforce of mostly single skilled technicians. So this is forming our new apprenticeship to undertake a multi-skilled program, which better equips them to be versatile and agile in their roles.

Sonya Alexander: Interesting times, the development of the degree apprenticeships will rival the more traditional graduate route. We are keen to promote and inspire students into STEM subjects and careers, and we engage students at key decision points in their education. Students hearing our career stories is key to challenging existing perceptions of STEM.

Andrew Ward: Careers advice in schools is an interesting topic – in my personal experience, I’m concerned about the fact that nobody is talking careers in schools and I’m also concerned that the STEM type courses that are offered are typically very traditional, academic science courses, and I’m not sure they are structured correctly.

Anne Comber: Indeed, there isn’t the investment in schools to support young people making career choices. We know, through the work that we do, supporting vulnerable young people into sustainable work, how incredibly important career guidance is and the very positive impact it has on their transition into adulthood and their long-term life chances.

Ian Dowd: Trying to get education leavers, and people in general to come into Payroll is a challenge, and to really shift the trend, it does take more coordination. We work with some universities and the Chartered Institute of Payroll Professionals to attract people into the sector. There’s a central Government role for setting the education agenda and helping coordinate local agencies and business and professional bodies.

Andrew Ward: I wonder whether we are too narrow and traditional in what we look for when we hire students. You don’t have to have studied technology at A or even degree level to be a really great technologist, and also there is this pressing issue of attracting more females into STEM, early on in education.

Mito Makin: Indeed, and here, role models are a powerful tool. Today, we are all making emotional judgements based on imagery and a social mould has already been created, and we can extend this to role models of women leading scientific areas or male leaders running diversity programmes. If we can exhibit and share more role models, why people are passionate about their jobs, then I think that can be the best career advice.

Sonya Alexander: We are keen to attract and engage a diverse range of talent from a variety of backgrounds. So it is about demonstrating the roles that our people actually do and who is doing them, some of which is highlighted through the career stories on our career website which show different employees and their experiences, what they do, their education and why they enjoy working for McLaren.

Can apprenticeships and graduate schemes work harder and faster to improve the skills pipeline?

Stuart McPherson: With the Introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy in April 2017, a large organisation like ours will be recruiting and up skilling via Apprenticeship routes in much greater numbers than before. We have spent a lot of time mining existing data and identifying our key roles and mapping existing training programmes into potential apprenticeship courses. Degree level apprenticeship programmes delivered on the job will for some be a much better proposition than the current university route.

Charmyn Hall: What we are finding with our graduates is that they are not interested in the traditional career path or ladder, but if you ask them what they want to be in five years, they are interested in the different opportunities that will open up for them and the impact they will make. They want to know how they will make a difference to the world by being with our company as opposed to another company.

Michael Woodhall: We have a long history of engineering apprenticeships at Ford, and always had opportunities for internal employees as well as external people to join the scheme so they can develop their skills further. In terms of strong role models, John Fleming, formerly head of Ford of Europe before becoming head of Manufacturing came through the apprentice route. We have increased our business apprenticeship opportunities over the last three or four years, and are looking to increase visibility of these programmes in the future.

Stuart McPherson: We need to help shift the perception of exactly what an apprenticeship programme consists of and how the incoming standards set to replace the current apprenticeship framework will affect your delivery models. The new Trailblazer groups will put the content design very much back in the hands of the employers who are setting much more contextualized end point examination routes. The standards and the displaying of that particular competency in the workplace will enable programmes to be much more aligned to business output.

Andrew Ward: We are using apprentice programmes currently to supplement our graduate programmes. These all involve working towards a degree as well as a professional qualification. It’s an interesting experiment for us and a more expensive route because of the length of time it takes them to qualify, and it’s too soon to know whether it will create a different dynamic when they qualify. They do the same type of topics, just over a slightly different time frame. They have slightly different jobs when they start off. It synthesises quite nicely and has helped broaden the diversity of our hiring bringing in new ideas and attitudes.

Charmyn Hall: We find apprentices challenging to attract as they don’t recognise our brand, whereas graduates are likely to have used our tools in their labs, so we focus on attracting local apprentices so that they can learn about us as an employer. With Graduates, we want the high potential people that other companies, with bigger household branding than we have, are also competing for.

Jane Nicholson: It will be interesting to see what will happen to the higher education sector as more and more employers recruit apprentices. Are we producing the right graduates? I think the higher education sector is going to have to adapt to what we as employers require.

Andrew Ward: We already offer a post-graduate route for students and, to some extent, are already offering a business school experience; we just don’t brand it that way.

There’s a strong case too in sectors that are historically elite, opening up opportunities to a wider demographic.

Jane Nicholson: Indeed, that is the case in the legal profession, and so actually it would not be that big a leap for the accountancy profession to actually start thinking about that. There is talk about moving closer to the German Apprenticeship model and as large employers start to offer well respected apprenticeships then that brand will improve in terms of inclusion.

Ian Dowd: One of the observations from looking at various companies now is they are almost trying to look for the finished product rather than some of the base skills that they can build on, they seem much more impatient to get to the finished product rather than make a contribution to it.

Jane Nicholson: The Civil Service of course has a public duty, so one of our rationales from recruiting apprentices is that we won’t keep necessarily all of our apprentices and that some of the output of that, the apprentices who don’t stay with us are trained and can then benefit the wider society.

Sonya Alexander: Whilst we hope that individuals who join through a development programme, for example, will stay with us when they complete their programme to pursue their career aspirations, we do recognise that not everyone will stay. Where this is the case, I think this could be a virtuous circle, where having developed with us, these potential ambassadors become part of an extended talent community.

Anne Comber: I do have concerns that the Graduate Apprenticeships won’t necessarily add value to young people, it’s very dependent on how the employers utilise them. There is a concern that it could be used in a way that doesn’t meet that need, and it is simply cheap labour or just a re-badging. So I am slightly concerned to see how it develops. A key enabler of our new corporate strategy is our commitment to becoming a learning organisation, an organisation that continuously improves, innovates and shares learning and knowledge.

Andrew Ward: I’m struck by the phrase, “when they complete their programme.” We all use that a lot and think in those very traditional terms. I do worry about the focus in HR, L&D and amongst individuals on discrete programmes, as opposed to continuous learning. I am also concerned that we overscript the learning and early career experiences on our student hire schemes and, when they complete those programmes they don’t have the self-learning skills they need and continue to look to us to manage their learning and careers for them.

Jane Nicholson: We aren’t chunked like that, they are all part of our talent agenda so apprentices are managed by the same team that manages the graduates and the same team that manages the talent programmes to our senior exec level. Yes they are separate schemes, however there is a flow expected so, for example, one of the discussions we are having is that we bring in people to do a leadership apprenticeship, who wouldn’t necessarily go into certain types of role, which are traditionally Oxbridge dominated in the civil service.

Sonya Alexander: Ultimately its workforce planning and the destination for individuals being brought into any development programmes is a part of that, filling the skills gaps, the talent pipeline and succession. So it is important to keep an agile vision for what career paths might look like, mindful of the business resourcing needs.

Stuart McPherson: If you paint that picture to the potential apprentice or graduate at the outset of their programme, they are more tuned into how their input affects not just their own teams but the organisation as a whole. They have a deeper realisation of the benefit that they give the business and the impact that it has.

Mito Mackin: If I can take a Japanese example – my background – they have very clear tracks based on whether you joined after a university education or high school education. From the “apprenticeship track” – or their version of it – they can switch over to the other track of people who came from university education, especially in the larger companies. So although your entry point is different, you can develop their career via the technical “hands on” knowledge, or through the academic university education track, and there are points of jumping onto the other track if they meet the credentials.

Jane Nicholson: Let us remember that not everybody wants, or is capable of progressing. We actually need people who are good and happy in their jobs, and they may not want to progress. It’s important to keep people not progressing feeling equally as valued.

Much is spoken about the employer brand, how important is that in recruitment and delivering the necessary skills and talent to fulfil the resourcing needs of the business?

Michael Woodhall: Employer brand and corporate reputation is key, and we constantly work on what makes Ford unique, some characteristics of work, opportunities for development, work/life balance and quality of leadership. But it’s very much what you do rather than what you say that really drives attraction and retention.

Charmyn Hall: Agreed and its communicating via the channels that people use, because a very diverse, global talent base is key and emphasise the different types of career journeys people can embark on. We are focussing on trying to make every recruitment experience more individual and that’s how, as a mid-size company, we are competing for talent.

Sonya Alexander: The McLaren brand is of course very strong and we have developed our Employee Value Proposition based on what has been fed back as important to our employees, what they enjoy about working for us, and what differentiates us. We are continually improving how we convey this proposition externally and internally, to ensure that the employee experience when someone joins aligns to their perception before joining. There are four key principles to our EVP and two of them focus on the meaningful and innovative work that people are involved in and how this is continually challenging and interesting to our employees, so the reality of our work is one of the key strengths that we hope comes across as we seek to attract talent into our businesses.

Anne Comber: Agreed, we do need to work harder to ensure we have a diverse workforce representative of the communities we work with. I think one of the challenges is that people don’t really understand what Barnardo’s is, either as a charity or as an employer; and it’s an important message that needs to be delivered coherently and consistently.

Andrew Ward: We have put in a lot of effort globally into telling our story, our history, the importance of our work to society and businesses, and the support we give to our communities. We are trying to reconnect people with a sense of purpose; it’s not just accounting or management advice, it’s about making a difference to the world around us, and building confidence in business.

Let’s look at attrition and retention – there is this issue of extremely short tenure – can you afford to spend out on their development, and pragmatically watch them take that to a competitor?

Ian Dowd: Every business has its challenges whether that be an unhealthy lack of turnover, or a real problem with attrition and retention. An organisation we work with recently identified that the people that stayed tended to have a change in their role every 18 to 24 months, either a change in job or role or responsibilities and the people that had left tended to stick with the same role.

Andrew Ward: Too many organisations I have worked in have separate recruitment and talent teams. It’s important to create programmes to attract people and hire them but we do less in many cases to support actively internal mobility. We need to do more to develop career management skills, to promote internally opportunities that exist. I don’t think we put enough investment in that part of our world compared to what we invest in external recruitment.

Anne Comber: We’ve all had those challenges where managers struggle to release people to do project work or secondments or shadowing opportunities. There is a challenge taking managers with us on that journey to support our aspirations to create internal development opportunities.

Mito Mackin: Indeed, and some people may want to repeat their experience in a specific domain which is fine, but some people may want to continually evolve so internal mobility would be important. It’s also about what they have learned and being able to see how their contribution has factored in the company’s success.

Andrew Ward: We’ve created a career development team whose job is to give individual career advice to people who would otherwise think of leaving. That’s been unbelievably successful. People tend to go to it when they are thinking of leaving and a good third, so far, have actually decided to stay as we’ve been able to offer them alternative challenges.

Michael Woodhall: Agreed, success with individual aspiration and fulfilment is down to the quality of the supervisor, having that mind-set to support those that want to develop and change roles every two or three years, and that’s about confidence.

Short tenure careers and the multi-generational workforce are accepted realities, so what is the most appropriate strategy for the future and, also, how can reskilling and up skilling programmes be better managed and optimised to provide solutions to skill gaps?

Stuart McPherson: The length of an employee’s potential tenure should not prevent you from investing in them, firstly your industry as a whole benefits, and what goes around comes around. Plus technical skills is one thing but behavioural-type skills need to be developed too. So define the skills that you need to plug and develop people to fill the gaps, use values-based reward programmes and encourage employees to live the values day-to-day and celebrate good progression and performance.

Andrew Ward: HR always strike me as rather paternalistic, but really the responsibility for learning and development is with the individual. It’s really not my job to tell them what to do and create a perfect career path and say you do this first and then you do that. There are different approaches to that and you could go further giving people the responsibility for choosing and funding their own learning and development accounts, repositioning learning as a supplier to an internal marketplace.

Jane Nicholson: We have had a very hands off approach up until relatively recently, where learning is an individual’s responsibility, and for the Home Office, it has failed, mainly because people have prioritised task over themselves. There may be some deeper cultural issues around why people don’t do training; they think it’s about fixing problems rather than continual professional development. So we are having to step in and introduce a paternalistic approach, in depth development planning, some real psycho analysis about what is stopping them from being the best that they can be and really being more interventionist.

Ian Dowd: As automation takes hold, the necessity for softer skills is rising, and the more marketable skills will be things like teamwork, collaboration, the art of persuasion and teaching others, how we relate to each other. It can be quite difficult sometimes to teach those skills online – it needs classroom training, group work and face to face interaction, so your way of learning is about how you use your knowledge to collaborate, not about how much knowledge you consume individually and then output from that.

Jane Nicholson: The big thing that we are losing out on is the people skills that we want to develop, and collaboration with team working. But since taking a much more interventionist approach, the response we are getting is one we didn’t expect, as people are saying “we feel so much more valued by the organisation, because you are actively coming in and supporting our development”.

Andrew Ward: I think one of the challenges is, if people take responsibility for L&D, how do they know where the gaps are, the future demand and opportunities? Also, I think most HR teams struggle with keeping role based competency models up-to-date in a way that is actually useful. We need to find a more dynamic way of doing that.

Michael Woodhall: I wonder if it’s as simple as the fact that workload for a lot of people has increased over the last 20 years as organisations have got leaner? I think most people get the importance of L&D, but on a day to day basis, if you’ve got a project that is due tomorrow versus the learning opportunity, what do people prioritise? I do sense a shift, but some people still struggle to give themselves permission to learn.

Sonya Alexander: Making space for learning is a key challenge. In part, it is the perception of learning that needs to change and most organisations are embedding the 70, 20, 10 model. I think ownership for learning also needs to be reviewed. We have designed a new management programme and it is entirely learner led, starting with a self-assessment of strengths and development areas and leading into a tailored, blended programme. I think there is also a culture change required around learning, supported by a hybrid model of learning programmes and agile resources clearly aligned to measurable impact that puts the learner in the lead.

Anne Comber: It’s critical for individuals to take responsibility but supported by a line manager that values the contribution. It’s about the every day learning experience that’s really important, We know people learn differently and we need to be able to give people exposure to a broad range of things to develop their skills. It very much needs to move away from just the e-learning or class room event – it’s a cultural journey.

Mito Makin: Real skills development was often coming from “on-the-job” training because it is very specific. So I was thinking how we can try and do that in a more structured way, and so the role of the line manager then becomes very important. It will be about how can we try to get that structured feedback on the job that complements any training programme, that can really have direct impact to an individual, because it is real, it is concrete.

Sonya Alexander: Absolutely, it is so important to look at practical experiences and we need to be clear about the intended learning and commitment required of these experiences and ensure we ask some key evaluative questions such as what did you get from the experience? What did it add to your skill set? How did it stretch you? What would you do differently next time?

Michael Woodhall: It goes back to the learning culture, just taking the time to reflect on what worked, or hasn’t worked and having that personal discipline on a regular basis is a very valuable way of learning.

Stuart McPherson: Yes, this lesson learned piece is really important. If we can engender this sort of culture within the organisation through our cleaning teams and security teams it can redefine what learning can look like in the workplace.

Jane Nicholson: And it’s having the culture and confidence to admit mistakes, this idea of the humble manager isn’t it? That it’s alright for that something isn’t perfect, because that’s part of the learning process and we have to instil that type of culture much more into a very task-driven environment.

Is data and analytics delivering the qualitative information to enable businesses to plan more accurately for skills requirements ensuring that the resourcing needs and business aspirations are part of the same plan?

Michael Woodhall: Whilst we are data-driven in our decisions and we value high quality data and analysis, we do not tend to use “big data” in HR to make predictions or decisions. I think it could be helpful, but I think you have to be very mindful of how you use these techniques, particularly from a diversity perspective.

Ian Dowd: There is a difference between ‘big data’ and ‘shed loads of data’. I do think that big data is more to do with super-computing and all that kind of stuff. My sense is that HR in general is not ready for big data. It’s more how to use the shed load of data that already accumulates through HR transactions. But there’s a real opportunity for data aided decision-making.

Andrew Ward: I can do correlation analyses all day long if I have the underlying data and I come back to that point about competency frameworks. If there’s no competency framework and no one is measuring skills I’m going to struggle. I agree with all the things you are suggesting in terms of equipping managers to be far more skilled and to be more proactive but I think one of our key challenges as a profession is to build the raw materials that allows that to work. We can start looking at demographics but what do we mean by skill? How do you know you’ve got a skills gap if you can’t describe it.

Michael Woodhall: The main challenge for our organisation is not data around current performance or ability, it’s the “one foot in today, one foot in tomorrow” scenarios – identifying the skills you are going to need in five or ten years’ time is a major challenge, and reviewing historical data and making predictions off of the back of that, maybe less helpful than something that can help you assess future trends.

Andrew Ward: I think that’s a real risk, you are driving via the rear view mirror. So I think it doesn’t have to be only backwards looking, it can always be predictive and it can also test, again you need the language, what was the outcome and how are you defining what that outcome looks like. Experimentation is crucial and I think data is a crucial way to test whether it works or not.

Ian Dowd: At board level, you get a Sales Director who goes into a board meeting and says “I have sold this much”, a Procurement Director that shows how much they have saved, but when it gets to the HR function, it has a bigger challenge to quantify its input, not it’s worth, but decisions that might need to be made on the basis of it. So bringing in useful data that can be acted upon, an actionable insight – people are more or less engaged, recruitment versus attrition is more complicated, so the challenge of bringing that data to life for decision makers is much more complex.

Charmyn Hall: Agreed, our marketing team are excellent at segmenting data and using that to plan campaigns and address product needs, and in HR, we must use these skills to action the data we gather.

Sonya Alexander: I concur with that too, and going back to the workforce planning, it is about the type of data and insights that we are seeking to gather and review against the key questions we are trying to answer. As well as the close relationship needed between HR, Finance, Marketing and IT to help pull together the holistic data set for a complete insight into future plans and what the potential capability gap might be. It’s about working collaboratively with these departments to better understand our current and changing business, markets and labour landscapes.

Jane Nicholson: We are great at big data, as you can imagine being a Government department, but our issue is the validation of that data as well and underpinning what that actually means. It’s the sensible and insightful interpretation of the data where I think we fall down.

Sonya Alexander: There’s often a lot of activity generating a lot of data versus thinking about the questions we are trying to answer. We should focus our data sets on what we are trying understand and to review the hypotheses we set ourselves, aligned to business strategy.

Ian Dowd: It’s important to ascertain whether systems are keeping up with the demand for better analysis of data and decision-making, are they a facilitator or a blocker, a help or a hindrance?

Mito Mackin: For me it’s not the function of the system but a function of the will. Do you want to make it happen? If we have the will in HR, if we can make the same transformation. Right now I think systems are used as an excuse, but any system can be fixed.

Andrew Ward: I think the challenge is asking the right questions. We often act on the back of bold statements about reality as we see it such as, “there’s a skill shortage”, but how well do we really understand the problem? What does that statement really mean, where is it and what skills are we missing?

Anne Comber: You have to get under the data. the data is useful, it’s an indicator, but on it’s own it doesn’t tell a story. HR has a valuable role to play in that.

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