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25th July 2019

By Lauren Anderson, HR consultant and principal investigator, By Design Group, as featured in HR Review.

In an ideal world, business leaders would accurately predict the future by peering in to a crystal ball every Monday morning – but unless you’ve got Mystic Meg on your side, preparing for future business challenges can only come from understanding your current position in respect of talent and skills gaps; identifying where you want to be in the future and what stumbling blocks you might encounter along the way! You also need to know how you plan to get there supplemented by ensuring you gain insight in to current market trends, analysing the challenges and opportunities arising within the industry and maintaining a strong understanding of the economy, demographic trends and changing social attitudes. Alongside all of this, leaders need to ensure that they’ve got a talent management strategy that is future-focussed, proactive and that meets the needs of a dynamic business environment.

Business leaders need to consider whether they would have enough skilled individuals to meet an increase in customer demands or how they would cope with any sudden loss of key personnel. Of course, one option would be to look at recruiting. But you can be certain that if there is a skills gap within your industry, your competitors will be hunting down the same people. Business leaders need to mitigate the risk of not having individuals with the right skills and that takes much more than a reactive approach to talent management.

Recent research from McKinsey “Are we Long – or short – on talent?” highlighted that around 60 percent of global executives believe that up to half of their workforce will need retraining or replacing within the next five years. Their advice? That businesses “should embrace a more expansive and dynamic view of their talent supply – one that tosses out the usual preoccupation with titles and traditional roles and looks instead at the underlying skills people have.”

Leaders need to be one step ahead of the game at all times. It is simply not enough for businesses to focus purely on recruiting when a need arises. The greatest success comes from understanding that you will have untapped skills and talent in your current workforce, and by designing an effective, future focussed learning and development strategy in which upskilling, internal promotion and talent development lies at the heart of business objectives.

Not only does it save on recruitment costs, in many cases, upskilling and career development is an intrinsic motivator for employees. It has been proven to result in a more engaged workforce, higher productivity, increased job satisfaction and can positively impact on employee wellbeing.

Let me tell you how it’s worked in my organisation. Back in 2013 when Law by Design (part of the By Design Group) was first established, one week after opening the doors the government announced the introduction of Employment Tribunal fees. For a newly opened employment law firm, that was a ‘punch in the stomach’ moment. Not only did it have a huge impact on workflow, it had a wider impact on talent availability which is still being felt six years down the line.

The lower number of employment tribunal cases meant that less law firms were offering employment as a training seat. Subsequently, there were less newly qualified solicitors specialising in Employment Law. Fast forward to 2019; Employment Tribunal fees were abolished in Summer 2017; by September 2018, the number of ET cases increased by 130%. The market availability of newly qualified up to five years PQE was (and still is) low. As a small, boutique employment law firm, we have to compete with the larger, big-name law firms; the ones who are able to offer training contracts and national recognition.

So how did we bridge the skills gap?

This is where upskilling and the development of members of our current team has paid dividends and has been key to the success of the business as a group. We have trained graduates on the job in basic employment law who have been able to undertake employment paralegal work to support the solicitors in their cases.

Our investigations team (part of the wider group) are trained to undertake paralegal work in employment law by the experienced solicitors – this is part of their learning and development package from day one in the job. Consequently, we have motivated, engaged employees that can work symbiotically across business units and an enhanced, more cost effective service for our clients.

We have found, particularly with being an SME, that upskilling has been integral to the success of the company. Our teams are small and therefore employee absence, whether through annual leave, sickness absence or maternity leave etc, could potentially impact on the day to day running of the organisation. But by ensuring our employees are multi-skilled and can operate across the group, we have the appropriate support networks in place to ensure continuity of business. That has formed a part of our talent management strategy which is absolutely key.

Alongside developing and supporting your employees in their career and skills development, focussing on retaining your workforce is essential but can also be a challenge. Business leaders need to give consideration to changing social attitudes about work and successfully manage a diverse workforce spanning five generations. Understanding the demography of your workforce is key to ensuring that your talent retention strategy is effective and helps make sure that you don’t lose your key personnel to your competitors.

For example, you could have highly skilled, committed and loyal retirement-age workers who still want to work but who no longer want to commit to a full time role or you may also have working mothers or fathers who only want to work during term time. You might have highly skilled millennials whose motivators are completely different. These days, it’s not about a one size fits all approach towards retaining valuable members of your workforce – it’s about listening, understanding, and taking the time to work with your employees to understand where their motivation lies and what represents job quality to them.