A cruel form of musical chairs


In his pre-Budget speech back in March, Chancellor Philip Hammond alluded to a grim future with; “large numbers currently employed becoming unemployed as their skills are simply obsolete for our economy.” This future has already arrived, and is disrupting the present through technology change and reshaping our everyday habits. One estimate suggests that retail alone will shed over 900,000 jobs by 2025.

All down the high street, stalwart businesses are folding and workers are forced to look for new jobs, and face a choice of re-training in skills that may become obsolete in the near future, playing a cruel form of musical chairs as they chase new occupants that will also become obsolete in time. Organisations are having to reconsider their employee value proposition. There are two obvious paths they can follow.

The first, the ‘just in time’ approach to work, has given rise to the gig economy. Lowering investment in people equates to lowering costs and risks in many eyes and is therefore very attractive to the organisation. One recent study estimated 40 percent of American workers would be independent contractors by 2020. Independent contractors may be the solution for low cost, low margin service industries like delivery drivers, or fast food workers. However, this model doesn’t build resilience in those organisations, as they are reliant on the jobs market having a ready supply of the skills they need.

A second path, one that better suits organisations that need to cultivate knowledge and innovation to add value, involves investing heavily in learning. However, they face a similar challenge to schools – if the future is unknown, how do you prepare people for it? In addition, organisations, or at least the people that run them, tend to value knowledge and technical competency when making hiring decisions. The result is, what is valued is acquisition of knowledge, rather than the capacity for people to grow, adapt and learn new skills. Similarly, learning interventions tend to focus heavily on knowledge transfer, rather than enabling skills and unlocking potential.

In doing so, the L&D function is simply carrying forward the flawed premise that success in yesterday’s world leads to success tomorrow. What is required is a workforce that can cope with changing roles and building new skills as the demand of organisations shift and change.

Organisations need learners and adaptors, not established experts, again, the present data bears this point out: Research by the World Economic Forum highlights that the most in demand occupations are in jobs that did not exist as little as five years ago.

Organisations that are adapting to the new reality are focusing in on one thing; ownership. They have recognised that creating heavily-engineered solutions is just no longer relevant or an effective use of resources. Instead, they are putting learning back into the hands of the individual, creating opportunities and support frameworks such as; mentoring, coaching, and peer networks. However, delivering success in such an approach is easier said than done. People often need to be weaned off long-held beliefs of the curricula being the clear pathway to success and a perception of learning as an obstacle course to be completed. Instead, taking greater ownership means an unending process of exploration, and in an uncertain world, success will not necessarily mean constantly getting everything right.

To put this in to context, the Chancellor’s offer to spend £40m on training, we should look to a country that is actively building resilience into its workforce: Singapore has developed the Skills Future programme, where everyone receives money – around £275 – from the Government to spend on skills training of their choice. Key features of this programme actively promote the shift to people taking ownership of their learning. Firstly, people can choose how they spend the money – making an active choice in the path they follow. Secondly, much of the learning takes place in group work, promoting collaboration as participants tackle the challenges that learning new skills and changing how they work requires. Replicating such a scheme here would cost the UK Government approximately £8bn, which puts Philip Hammond’s £40m in perspective.


This article appears in The HR Director Magazine.