Overeducated and Underskilled – is it Recruiters’ fault?

Yesterday’s report by the Office for National Statistics that “31% of graduates are ‘over-educated’ for their job” has attracted a lot of attention, especially given the apparent conundrum that businesses are constantly complaining that people lack the right skills for the jobs.

There are a lot of issues here – including the question of whether the education system’s purpose is simply to provide trained labour for business; the consequences of the expansion of the university system; and even the philosophical question of whether it’s possible to be ‘over-educated’.

However, I want to concentrate on one factor which business has direct control over: recruitment. It seems to me that part of the problem is either laziness or ignorance on the part of those who manage recruitment.

The ONS report makes what I consider the same error as many businesses – to confuse education levels with skills. And as a result, we get what the CIPD’s David D’Souza describes as ‘weak signals’ in the labour market.

Too many recruiters will simply add in the phrase “degree-level educated” as an easy way to sift candidates, without even thinking about whether the skills or knowledge a degree brings are relevant to the job being advertised.

Take for example a recent job I saw advertised, for a Project Manager. It was in a very specialist sector and yet the first requirement in the person specification was to hold a degree. Not a specific, job related degree, but any degree. Given that many companies use automated sifting systems as part of their recruitment process, they would presumably reject someone without a degree but who had very relevant experience, but someone with a degree in a totally unrelated subject (let’s say Mediaeval History) would make it through to the next stage.  When they came to review the shortlist, hiring managers would no doubt tut about the shortage of good candidates.

Degrees are important in certain situations – particularly when we want people to demonstrate a certain level of independently verified knowledge of a subject. But in most cases we need to be understand what skills and knowledge a degree demonstrates; whether our job role actually requires these; and if there are other ways candidates can demonstrate that they possess these skills and knowledge.

Of course, this takes more time than the simple “just put out the advert on the job board” approach. But as I’ve argued repeatedly, recruitment is a major investment decision (especially in small businesses) and it’s worth taking a little more time to get the right person rather than making lazy assumptions.

College graduate students

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition

Apart from working with small businesses, I’m also a CIPD Tutor with one of the UK’s leading HR training providers. Quite often when doing some of the more “theoretical” stuff, I can see learners’ eyes glaze over with a “what has this got to do with the real world and my job as an HR business partner” expression.

But the practical application of some of these theories and models is frequently key to many HR and business decisions.  For example, what we rather grandly like to call “environmental scanning” – with models such as STEEPLE, Five Forces and Blue Ocean – is essential to anticipating likely changes that may affect our organisations.

Take for instance George Osborne’s “National Living Wage”.  Judging by some of the reactions from some business organisations, this is the greatest disaster to hit business for years. Yet businesses have worked within the minimum wage rules for nearly 20 years and the “shock” of this new policy was that – for many – it was an unexpectedly large increase. But any business which had done any kind of serious forward planning would have been aware that all the parties at the last election were committed to significant increases in minimum wage levels – not necessarily for altruistic reasons but as part of the strategy to reduce the deficit. (I’m happy to say that a client I work with in a low pay sector had factored in big increases to their wage costs into their business plans as a result of doing some of this planning, so it hasn’t proved as much of an issue for them).

HR professionals continue to agonise about how they “add value” to businesses. Being aware of what’s going on in the wider world, and anticipating how this might affect the companies we work for, is one easy way in which we can demonstrate that HR is actually a vital part of modern business.

Straw and Rifkind show the problem of managing staff with “second jobs”

There’s been much schadenfreude in the exposure of two former high ranking government ministers, Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw, touting themselves for business and offering to sell their “influence” to a fictitious Chinese company. (In the interests of political neutrality one is from the Conservatives, one from Labour).  It’s provoked a debate about whether MPs should be banned from holding second jobs.

MPs aren’t employees. But the same issue of whether an employee can hold a second job is one I am often asked. So what is the situation?

Firstly, you can’t impose a blanket ban on individuals doing work when they aren’t working for you. Individuals have a right to spend their time outside work in whatever way they wish, which includes earning money. However, you do have a right to ensure that they are not doing anything which could damage your business –so you can legitimately prevent them from working for a competitor, or other organisation which might want access to your commercial information (a supplier or customer for example). As with all these things, should matters be challenged by the employee, you’d need to show that there was some clear impact on your business.

You can also prevent an employee from doing other work if it would stop them from working for you. So if someone wants to do an evening job starting at 6 but isn’t due to finish their shift with you till 7, then you can of course also prevent them from doing this.

The third key area is Health and Safety, particularly (and ironically given how much some employers seem to hate them) via the Working Time Regulations. These lay down the rules about the maximum 48 hour working week, rest breaks and time between shifts. If a member of staff works 35 hours a week for you (9 to 5 Mon-Fri say) and then wants to do 20 hours a week in a bar (say a four hour shift Wednesday/Thursday/Friday/Saturday/Sunday) you could try to prevent them from doing so on the grounds that they are working 55 hour weeks possibly without sufficient rest between shifts. Again, if you can show a clear safety risk (they operate machinery for example) it’s easier to do this.

With the advent of flexible working, zero hours contracts (where all parties have pledged to outlaw exclusivity clauses that prevent people from working for someone else), increased numbers of part-time roles and the growing number of “in-work poor” mean that for many employers, their staff may well have more than one job. Managing such situations may become increasingly common.