UK workforce: End take your guinea pig to work day

March 09, 2017


The UK faces an emerging workforce crisis. What’s needed is a fundamental shift in mind-set by companies to address productivity levels and workforce exclusion. From this, the right policies will follow, argues Peter Truesdale.

I am fifty eight year old who is fed up with much corporate citizenship reporting on employees.

You know the kind of thing:

“Employees are our greatest asset. We were pleased to see a rise in employee engagement this year to 67% from 66%. Milestones include installing an exercise facility near the car park and our tenth year of participation in Take your guinea pig to work day.

Give me a break! That’s all you have to say about your greatest asset?

The Mercer report The Emerging UK Workforce Crisis ought to shake those companies out of their complacency.

Nationally the UK is busy setting up: “Migrants not welcome here” signs at all border points. At the same time demographic change means that the total population is growing 3-5% faster than the working age population.

Let’s put that more straightforwardly. It means more wrinkly-oldsters guzzling, costly NHS-medicines and clutching onto their free bus passes. It means fewer renty-somethings working to pay the taxes to support them.

For employers it is likely to mean skills shortages (local and national). Skills shortages mean higher wages. Higher wages without higher productivity mean decreasing competitiveness.

So we need to hear more about how employers are setting out to attract, impart and retain skills. We need to be told about strategies to increase productivity. Given the UK’s lamentable record in both these areas at least such reporting will have the virtue of novelty.

The problem is devoid of easy answers.

The UK workforce participation rate is already high by international standards. Therefore the burden of the response should ideally be higher productivity rather than yet-higher rates of workforce participation. On pages 13-17 Mercer sets out a menu of micro-measures that individual employers can employ to strengthen their own position in this tightening labour market.

The three groups highlighted that might contribute ‘extra’ workers are:

  • Groups in which economic activity is low (e.g. people with disabilities)
  • Women of all ages
  • Men over 50 years of age

Discussing this a colleague asked me: “What should employers do then?” Good question.

What they should not do is begin with a flotilla of mini-initiatives and micro-managed policy changes. What is required is a change of mind-set. Ordinarily I would recoil from such a high-falutin’ statement but I am old enough to remember the 1980s. Then things changed. When a woman went on maternity leave at the start of the 80s the default assumption was she would not come back. By the end of the 80s it was the other way round. The mind-set about what employment meant and who should be in the workplace changed. Not perfectly. Not completely. But it did change.

So before jumping into action employers need to question if they are really ready for the change. Is Pret-a-Manger really ready for grey-haired folk to be smiling and greeting as they hand out the skinny lattes? Is BA happy to have one of those greeters operating from a wheelchair? It needs thinking through.

Having thought it through from the employer’s point of view, organisations need to think it through from the potential employee’s point of view. I recently caught a Radio 4 programme chronicling an employer that had successfully dealt with a person who had developed a disabling condition and one that had not. The key difference was the first had focused on what the person could do and wanted to do. The second had done the exact opposite. What adaptations to the way the workplace functions are needed? And with consumer facing employers, what difference to the appearance of the workforce?

Work these issues through and policy changes can and will follow.

A critical difference exists between men and women who have worked and getting them to stay in/return to the workplace and those who have rarely or never worked. For the latter group special measures are likely to be needed. Yet this is not virgin territory. Timpson’s has long offered former prisoners a route into employment. Equally many companies have through their community programmes supported into-work-schemes targeted at ‘special’ groups. Certainly lessons can be learned from these. However they cannot be brought up to scale successfully without shifting them from the idea that these are ‘schemes’, to a reality that this is the new norm.

Study already successful initiatives. Remember that a change in attitude must precede a change in practice and policy.

Incidentally in terms of the three groups, I’m fully in favour of women and the excluded being called to the colours, if that’s what they want. As for men over 50 – speaking for myself, don’t they understand I’ve worked enough already?

Peter Truesdale is a Director of Corporate Citizenship