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Do you have the Suffolk Factor?

14 Dec 2018

IoD Suffolk DebateBusiness Leaders Discuss Struggle to Recruit Staff at IoD Suffolk’s Big Debate

In the fabulous surroundings of the King Edmund Chambers at Suffolk County Council offices in Ipswich, business leaders gathered together for the Institute of Directors’ Big Debate concerning skills shortages, low productivity levels and the ‘disconnect’ between businesses and schools regarding employability in Suffolk.

According to the panel of experts, this disconnect can be seen by the fact that while businesses struggle to recruit the correct staff, school leavers are unable to find a company that will take them on and value their skills.

Both SMEs and small local businesses struggle to recruit people with the correct skills because many expect people to join their business and operate with 100 per cent productivity immediately. However, as Carole Burman, Managing Director of Mad-HR, points out, “nowadays, the perfect candidate does not exist.”

With this in mind, Jordan Holder from The Careers & Enterprise Company highlighted the importance of bridging the gap between education and business, suggesting that businesses could contribute more to the school curriculum. 

For example, in one of Jordan’s schools, a careers guidance professional comes in two days a week and they have a Head of Information Advice & Guidance to help students make their career decisions.

David Wallace, Careers Coordinator at Stowmarket High School believes that businesses could even enter the curriculum by having professionals from different industries actively participating in lessons;

“We are getting a carpet fitter to come in to the Maths lesson because the students are learning about how to measure area. The carpet fitter is going to come in, measure the area of the classroom and cost it. Then he is also going to talk about what it is like to be self-employed, what whole-sellers are, and what it means to not have a fixed salary” he says.

While it is important that businesses enter the schools, it was agreed that it is equally essential for students to ‘leave’ institutions to carry out some form of work experience in between their studies; 

“Work experience is so undersold and it is frustrating that so many companies could provide young people with work experience but don’t. SMEs are very quick to moan that our children aren’t work -ready, but we aren’t prepared to put our neck on the line and give a couple of weeks of their time”, said Michelle Pollard, Managing Director of Spider.

Judith Mobbs, Assistant Director for Inclusion & Skills at SCC, added that it is “a great opportunity for a couple of weeks and allows students to try before they buy” while at the same time businesses can “build a bond with a young person so that they feel some affinity with the business”. 

Many companies choose not to provide work experience because their work is “too technical” and they do not want to give a child work experience which just involves “standing by the photocopier” because that “doesn’t add value to the child”. 

However, the panel stressed that work experience does not have to mean literally performing physical tasks. Jordan Holder explained that job- shadowing can be just as useful for students to get a “flavour” of the business, as academic achievement alone is not enough to prepare them for the world of work;

“I am working behind a bar serving customers alongside my studies and now I have the confidence to talk to different people and make eye contact, while there are A* students in my class who can’t even make conversation” said one of the IoD Students attending Suffolk One Sixth Form. 

Another issue addressed at the Big Debate was the fact that despite there being approximately 35,000 small, local and family businesses in Suffolk, they are finding it difficult to compete with big SMEs to recruit people because graduates choose high salaries over unique work experience and progression;

“It is very hard to make that connection because we are very fragmented and we just have not got the resources to be BT or an EBF, so it makes it really difficult to spread the message that these businesses are also a great opportunity”, said Elizabeth Pearce from Omega Ingredients. 

Carole Burman explained that if a family member is interviewing someone, it is very easy to talk passionately about the business because “it is in you DNA already”. However, trying to convey that to someone with two or three job offers is a challenge. 

She suggested that the companies could try to “spark something in them” and show people that their business is valuable enough for people to opt for that lower-salary option.

While determined to connect schools with businesses and encourage graduates to go down a different professional route with smaller companies, the panel were also keen to address that employability difficulties in Suffolk may also be linked to “wider societal issues around citizenship and self confidence” in both school leavers and older people.

“What I have found being back in Suffolk is that you have to take in to account the ‘Suffolk Factor’. What I mean by the Suffolk Factor is that I find recruiting people here is difficult because they don’t have that inner self-confidence and belief. It takes longer to nurture them. They have the inner drive but they don’t externalise it very well”, said Ian White from Beckett Investment Management Group. 

Dr Suzanne Nolan, Senior Lecturer in Employment Development at the University of Suffolk added that there is a lack of confidence amongst the Suffolk school-leavers, but also in older people who are coming out of the recession and “having to re-train and rethink”. This lack of self confidence could also be passed down to their children, making it “generational”, said Jordan Holder. 

This partly suggests why the productivity in the East of England is 50 per cent lower than in London. The debate chair, Paul Winter MBE, Chairman of New Anglia Skills Board for Norfolk & Suffolk, commented that if productivity figures are so low, then “we should make the current workforce more productive as well as just adding to the workforce”. This requires boosting peoples’ confidence and making them believe that their skills are valuable.

The speakers decided that the difficulties which businesses and job seekers are facing in Suffolk with regards to employability were down to three main problems: Insufficient communication, businesses under-selling themselves and lack of self-belief.

“It is a case of re-scaling, up-scaling and retaining skills as much as it is looking at schools” says Paul Winter, but as agreed by the debate panel, we must not forget the key to locking businesses and people together; recognising both the value of the business and the value of those people. 

The IoD Big Skills Debate in Suffolk is one of many interesting debates held across the East of England region each year and both members and non-members are welcome to join the discussions.

Further event information can be found here.



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