Why our views on building people’s skills are outdated

Photo by ROCCO STOPPOLONI on Unsplash

2023 is theĀ European Year of Skills. This is an initiative from the European Commission to address skill shortages within the EU.

Considering that it’s October and you probably never heard of this, I’m going to suggest that this initiative hasn’t been a roaring success.

The rationale is there – according to the Commission three quarters of companies in the EU say they have difficulties finding workers with the necessary skills.

This week, I attended the EU Industry Days – all things industrial policy. One of the topics that came up frequently was around skills, including a set-piece panel on it.

The message was clear – we need more people in these jobs.I must admit this conversation was the one that left me the most disillusioned. Whilst there were some interesting points, a key answer seemed to be about ‘improving the image’ of traditional industry to attract young people.

I was very struck at how there was little to no self-reflection on why people might not want to work at these places. Calling it an image problem is far easier than actually looking at why people may not be actually getting through the door.

Let’s start with the practicalities of the job market. It is insane.We have the most educated workforce we have ever had. In Europe, having at least a bachelor and speaking several languages is becoming increasingly the norm. It’s increasingly common for me to meet people with Master degrees, often with two.

At the same time, applying for jobs has become one mad system to gamify. Job ads expecting years of experience for entry level positions have become the norm. We need to overcome bizarre AI technology scanning our CVs – fear the wrath of not having enough of the right buzzwords and see your application dumped straight into the bin. This happens even for admin jobs such as receptionists!

Organisations themselves expect far more from people in a far shorter amount of time. Even in my relatively short time in the workforce, I’ve seen the expectations of new recruits absolutely spiral – now it’s about getting them to hit the ground running in as little time as possible. Meanwhile, the real term pay offering is far less – many jobs might only just cover rent in shared accommodation in cities.

What I found disheartening was also a lack of any real discussion about widening access to the talent pool. There was no mention of initiatives such as return to work schemes for women post-maternity, let alone tackling diversity issues.

Coming from a South Asian background, I am neither particularly attracted nor would I recommend a career in traditional manufacturing sectors. Whether this is the reality or just my perception, I’d expect to experience issues of exclusion and racism. Meanwhile, I have many queer friends who would not ‘conform’ to the workplace expectations, and despite being highly emotionally intelligent, competent people, they would be frozen out.

Young people are less willing to put up with the bullsh*t of organisational culture. I’m rather in awe of Gen Z workers being able to see so clearly through the pointlessness of office practices, 9-5 routines and sliming through office politics for 50 years. This is not an image problem. This is a case of outdated mindsets for the modern world.

When businesses cry for more adept, skilled workers, the policy response is usually to increase the pipeline by encouraging more people to pursue these routes through education.Whilst this is a positive step, it doesn’t tackle some of the underlying issues. The whole system is based upon getting people with years and years of education into roles as quickly as possible A generation ago such requirements for most jobs would not have existed.

Most jobs don’t need people to have deep technical skills, and yet we are wanting people with over five years of university level education in areas such as computer science and engineering to fulfill them. Yes, there are roles that require the deep technical expertise, but in my experience these are far less than is actually made out.

I’m not always the biggest fan of relying on supply/demand to fix problems, but I think it can help here. People who are unemployed are willing to make the effort to reskill if it means they can feed their kids or have a fulfilling career. But currently, the barriers are way too high due to the amount of time investment needed.

It makes really little sense to go back to university for several years without even knowing if this will get you a job in the end. From a systems perspective, it’s expecting people to spend years of their lives studying just to have a technical qualification that they will probably not actually use for 80% of their job.Whilst I cannot speak for more technical subjects, my Master in European Studies, whilst helpful, would not have actually been needed for my job – most things I could have learnt within a couple of months of working. And this is despite me being one of the rare examples of people who actually works in the field that I studied in.

Most IT skills which are now basic requirements (web calling, project management – even self learning how to use PowerBI via LinkedIn) was learnt from learning whilst on the job, rather than a formal educational programme.

What we need is a shift in mindset. One that believes in people, rather than one obsessing over qualifications. We’ve sleepwalked into a situation where getting a job requires far more years of education than is actually needed. Now, when faced with skill shortages, we want to increase the supply of overqualified people, rather than shift the system.

When given the right conditions, people can learn an incredible amount in a very short amount of time. I’ve seen that for myself, and through working as a coach.

So let’s build a streamlined system. Both the economy and people will appreciate it.

Sign up to receive your weekly newsletter with blogs and podcasts!

fill in for FREE workbook goodies