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Donkin on Work - Training and Development

March 2007 – Skills training and the inter-generational divide

Last autumn I put together a survey of UK managers, testing their forward thinking in response to demographic and economic trends. It wasn’t a huge survey – about 250 respondents – but it was big enough to get a feel for the way managers were viewing the future of recruitment and employment policies.

Most of the responses were predictable but one finding surprised me. Asked if they expected the supply of entry-level employees to increase or decrease in the next 20 years three fifths of the managers said they thought it would either increase or stay the same. A minority, some two fifths of the respondents, expected the supply to decrease.

Maybe the response had something to do with the sectors in which most of those questioned were working, although there was a good cross-section of industries. Maybe the managers were focusing their thinking on graduate recruitment where demand continues to outstrip supply by some margin.

Had the questioned been asked of managers across the European Union, where youth unemployment rates are almost double those of overall unemployment, such a response would have been understandable. It will take time before this slack in the labour market is reduced.

But in the UK, at least, the response is contrary to forecasts issued last year in a report published by City & Guilds. In the next decade it said, some 600,000 fewer young people between the ages of 15 and 24 would be feeding in to the UK labour market at a time that expected employment growth would be creating a demand for 1.5m extra employees, creating a potential employment gap of more than 2m.

Yes, some of this shortfall could be plugged by a greater use of migrant workers, some could be undertaken by people working longer or returning after leaving the workforce, and some of the expected demand could be reduced by efficiency gains and greater automation. Even so, employers cannot afford to be complacent about the need to ensure that the next generation arrives within the labour market fully equipped to make the best of its employment potential.

Chris Humphries, City & Guilds director general, wrote of imbalances in an education system that “serves one half of the population – those with strong academic leanings – extremely well, but singularly fails the other half.”

He also made the point that there was a high productivity return from training low skilled staff, yet employers consistently prioritised their spending on training among those with the highest level of skills, not the lowest.

While government initiatives such as the New Deal in the UK and the Youth Unemployment Programme in Denmark have made significant inroads in reducing levels of long term unemployment among young people, employers appear to be doing very little to understand the needs and aspirations of the next generation of young employees.

Most graduate recruitment systems operated by large employers, for example, have become increasingly focused on a narrow group of graduates – those emerging with higher degrees from the best performing universities.

The “grow your own” philosophy still exists but probably more today when focused on graduates than it is on school leavers. While some companies, such as British Telecommunications have remained faithful to a strong apprenticeship system, the commitment among others has waned.

Too many employers appear to be abandoning youth development to a university system that is ill-equipped to provide high levels of practical and technical training in a way that compete with solid on-the-job experience. The Leitch Review of skills recommended various measures to improve school-to-work transitions, including more demand-led provision guided by employers.

A package of measures to meet deficiencies highlighted in the Leitch report can be expected in the chancellor’s spring budget statement. In the meantime, employers could be doing much more to understand the needs of young people in the context of changing influences on attitudes.

As Jennifer Deal, a research scientist at the Centre for Creative Leadership, points out in a new book, Retiring the Generation Gap, How Employees Young and Old Can Find Common Ground, the basic values of people do not change between generations: that is there are more differences within each generation than there are between generations.

“Fundamentally people want the same things, no matter what generation they are from,” she adds. What does differ, she says, is the way that people express their values in different generations.

One common area of inter-generational conflict she writes is the question of respect. Typically each generation encounters difficulty in gaining the respect of the other but usually, she says, this is more about appreciating respective viewpoints. Each generation, she says, seeks respect but there is a generational gap in the way people view age in relation to experience.

Young people worry that their views are appreciated less because of their lack of experience, whereas older people often feel undervalued because they think their experience is not perceived as important. Much of these difficulties, she suggests, can be overcome if people try to look at an issue from the perspective of the other generation.

She quotes Cicero, who once wrote: “Give me a young man in whom there is something of the old, and an old man with something of the young; [in that way] a man may grow old in body, but never in mind.”

Significantly her research found that no generation, no matter how young it is, likes to change. Older generations tend to cling to nostalgic impressions of a workplace that was better when they were younger. Younger people do not have the workplace history to voice such impressions, but this does not mean they are any more enthusiastic about change.

In fact Ms Deal’s research revealed that all generations have similar negative views about change. Generally change is regarded with suspicion since, within the workplace, it is often associated with doing more work with fewer people. People perceive that it will be implemented poorly, communicated poorly and that it will, in some cases, prove to have been unnecessary.

She found that all generations place equal emphasis on some of the most important areas of employment – respect, trust, loyalty, the desire to learn and the need for credible leadership. These things matter to everyone. Companies that ignore them are storing up trouble.

This means that companies should not view young people as intrinsically different from others. But they need to be aware, nevertheless, of contextual differences. Companies that offer great training packages will be valued by young people who are hungry for job-relevant expertise that they are not finding in the education system outside vocational courses.

All age groups will be looking for good pay but often for different reasons. College graduates are seeking to pay off their student loans whereas mid-career employees are probably struggling with a mortgage or the costs of rearing a family. Older employers meanwhile are worrying about how they may fund their old age.

The biggest gap facing young people and the workplace today, it seems to me, is not a generational divide but an inter-generational divide that says “skills training good, university better”. Not until this perception of practical education as the “second best” option for those who do less well academically is removed - through the injection of high quality skills training in to the education system - will the economy produce the consistently high level of skills that it needs.

*Retiring the Generation Gap, How Employees Young and Old Can Find Common Ground, by Jennifer J Deal is published by Jossey Bass, price £16.99

More on this research here: Generational attitudes

   
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