Party conference debrief - Key messages for recruiters
The annual circus of the Party Conference season is over for another year. As well as highlighting the contribution of recruiters to the UK economy and labour market, our series of fringe events in association with PCG (‘The Voice of Freelancers’) showcased the findings of our Flexible Work Commission and stimulated some high-energy discussions on new forms of work and the role of government in this area.
In summary, some of the key messages from the political front line that have a direct or indirect implications for the UK recruitment industry are as follows:
1. Jobs and growth are the priority – Discussions at all three major conferences honed in on the need to boost the jobs market and stimulate growth. The question is how. Some of the policy announcements (such as the rights for shares ‘swap-shop’ idea at the Conservative Party event in Birmingham) were not universally welcomed. We don’t feel it would make much difference in practice and that businesses can already access highly skilled and self-motivated workers without any perceived risks of full employments status – they are called contractors and interim managers!
2. Policymakers need to reflect the changing workplace. Speaking at our fringe event on promoting flexible working patterns in Birmingham, Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg made the point that it is the role of government to ‘get out of the way and let it happen’ ! Outside of the need for better support and guidance for jobseekers – including raising awareness of different forms of work - it is more about what government doesn’t do in terms of not adding to the regulatory quagmire. Discussions inevitably veered into AWR territory which provided a high-profile platform for underlining the role that agencies have played in limiting the impact and for renewing calls for the review in 2013 to be more than a window-dressing exercise.
3. There is increased urgency around the youth employment agenda. We stressed the need to tap into the expertise of recruitment professionals to deliver a careers guidance network that is fit for purpose. At our event in Manchester, Shadow Employment Minister Stephen Timms MP was particularly interested in flexible working arrangements as a route into employment for young people – one of the key themes of our Flexible Work Commission. Party conferences also provided an opportunity to strengthen our relationships with organisations such as the Princes Trust and UK Youth and to underline the positive role that our industry is already playing through initiatives such as the ‘Youth Employment Charter’.
4. The skills deficit is a major challenge but is also an opportunity for niche recruiters – The skills ‘disconnect’ was a common theme. Speaking from the main platform in Birmingham, Boris Johnson referenced that fact that fifty thousand engineers are required in London alone. Leading employers such as EDF Energy also underlined the urgent need for skilled staff. Government, businesses and education all have a stake in building the skills pipeline. In the short-term, niche recruiters with the right caliber of candidates on their books will be in strong position.
5. There is broad consensus on apprenticeships – All the major parties see apprenticeships as a way forward, the challenge is to increase take-up. Recruiters are already playing a key role by working with clients to manage the bureaucracy involved and there are commercial opportunities for those that can make things work on the ground. There was positive feedback from politicians on our work to develop a specific apprenticeship scheme for the recruitment industry.
6. The benefits of agency work are well-established but we need to remain on the front foot – Most politicians now recognise the benefits of temp and contract work for both employers and workers. However, the Labour Conference in Manchester confirmed that we are still facing deep-seated Trade Union objections to agency work as a concept. As a result, we need to seize every opportunity to dismantle the argument that all temporary staff are somehow underpaid and exploited and therefore in need of yet more swathes of legislative protection.
7. There are conflicting messages on labour market flexibility - There is still a fundamental disconnect in some of the political rhetoric. The Lib Dem conference in Brighton was a good example of this. On the one hand we saw the Business Secretary Vince Cable highlight the role of the UK’s flexible labour market in creating over a million new private sector jobs. On the other hand we had Danny Alexander re-emphasising his commitment to push ahead with plans (through the proposed ‘controlling persons’ legislation) that would essentially limit the use of contractors and interims. One immediate post-conference priority for the REC is to continue working with PCG and other organisations to push back on these proposals.
8. Focus is on supporting growth sectors – Conference speeches and fringe sessions focused on supporting future growth sectors such as technology, life sciences, oil & gas, engineering and creative industries. These are likely to be high demand sectors for recruiters and there was real interest in the work of specialist REC sector groups in all of these areas. For example, one of the sessions at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham focused on 'positioning the UK as global technology hub' which includes enabling employers to access the necessary skills and competencies. These high-demand sectors will also drive flexible working patterns with highly skilled workers choosing to work as contractors, interims or freelancers.
9. Changing demographics are major issue for policy makers – One priority is to ensure that workers are able to remain active within the labour market longer. Recruiters can play a key role here and flexible arrangements such as part-time and temporary work will provide a crucial outlet. A second key issue is that the ageing population has huge implications for the care sector. The feedback from MPs was that the need for effective care services will provide huge opportunities for many providers and that suitably skilled and properly vetted staff are key to delivering front-line services. REC Healthcare will continue to feed into this ongoing debate and flag the positive role that specialist recruiters play in this area.
10. Debates on responsible business and productivity present opportunities for good recruitment drive – Fringe sessions on responsible business practices were an opportunity to steer the debate towards the importance of effective and ethical recruitment. One conclusion was that for many businesses CSR was no longer a ‘bolt-on’ or something of an after-thought but was firmly embedded in corporate policies and practices. Inevitably, this will impact on how employers recruit and on the values they are looking to bring into the organisation. With regards to productivity, better management and leadership have often been cited as factors in the UK’s relatively poor performance. The suggestion is that better recruitment can also play a role in enhancing productivity as well as competitiveness.