In times of economic austerity it is natural for employers to hunker down, streamline operations and focus on the bottom line to keep their businesses afloat. Staff will naturally worry about the uncertainty facing their jobs and careers.
Against this backdrop one could be forgiven for thinking that investing in skills may not be uppermost on most employers’ minds. However, in a sector reliant on its people, skills matter even more at such times than at any other, and focusing on them is often the most cost-effective way for businesses to meet existing challenges and to grow, as well as offering the most highly valued rewards to their workers.
Many would argue that a powered up and well motivated workforce is the best possible tool a company can acquire to give itself that vital edge in hostile market conditions.
Many progressive employers have recognised that skills and training are the new currency and means to attract, retain and develop the best talent available.
Numerous job satisfaction surveys reveal that training and skills rank above compensation for job satisfaction. When asked which factors are most important to them in rating jobs and employers, opportunities to acquire new skills and use them rank among the topmost considerations for most employees, frequently even higher than monetary compensation, especially amongst young people.
This is not as much of a surprise as at first it may seem. Although our industry is ultimately focused on money and wealth creation for our customers, for the overwhelming majority of those working in it, day-to-day job satisfaction depends just as much on acquiring, honing and practising skills, being appreciated for doing an excellent job, and having prospects for career progression, as on their pay packets.
This applies across the board, from the birth of a new career right through to its very pinnacle. It is in our nature to want our achievements to be acknowledged, and to want to learn and progress and for ever improve. To be stuck in a rut makes most of us deeply unhappy. This begins with the young person testing the waters, invited into an organisation for work experience or an internship, and it is equally true of a senior manager reaching out for that next challenge.
If work experience imparts new skills and stimulates new faculties in the student, it may lay the foundations for aspiration and a vision of a fulfilling future career – tremendously valuable both to the employer and the student. If, on the other hand, the young person is given only boring and mindless tasks to carry out and feels he has learned nothing, even if he is paid, this is likely to turn him away from the organisation and the sector in which he has had this experience.
The Financial Skills Partnership’s online toolkits on work experience and on internships, available to FSP’s members now and soon for general purchase, provide practical help and guidance on how to structure and manage such experiences to ensure they provide maximum value to all involved.
At the other end of the career spectrum is Through the Glass Ceiling, the FSP’s programme of training for senior women. This consists of five one day workshops to develop women’s leadership skills. Feedback from those participating has been overwhelmingly positive, and the next series begins in March.
For employers it secures a pipeline of suitably skilled senior women, many more of whom they will need to recruit to increase the diversity of their senior management’s skills pool. The training provided may also help ensure that those trained feel valued and are more likely to remain with their employers, or return after a suitable career break for family life, rather than their talents being lost permanently to that particular employer, as is so often the case today.
Over the next five to 10 years, demand for senior women is likely to grow significantly as companies realise they have a need to diversify their work force and in particular their senior management and boardrooms. Whether or not the targets set by Lord Davies are met on time, and whether or not the EU introduces some form of quotas, companies are recognising that they need to become more diverse to mirror and serve an increasingly diverse market-place, in which, for example, more wealth is flowing into female hands.
These very practical considerations may also be understood in the context of a more fundamental rethink in our sector, as the current debates on boardroom culture show that there is a growing distrust of cultures reliant on monetary reward alone as a motivator. Not only does it skew our priorities and can at times conflict with our natural desire to do the best possible job, it is also seldom the best way to serve customers’ interests.
A high-risk high-reward culture has served no one, and this is exactly what the regulator is trying to change. Later this year, FSP’s new 21st century Leadership programme will be offering larger employers a set of practical tools empowering them to start implementing changes to their own boardroom culture which will directly benefit their businesses rather than simply reacting to outside pressure.
Skills are the life-blood of any business reliant on people to deliver its products. The expenditure on them is low compared to the immense added value they bring to employers both large and small.
What we are selling to our customers is knowledge and skill, and the quality of our product relies entirely on the breadth, depth and agility of the skills of those working in our businesses. As this translate straight into the bottom line, having the tools to do a job well, and be recognised for doing it, is the best possible outcome for employees, employers and customers.
Liz Field is chief executive of Financial Skills Partnership