Scotland’s skills are as vital as any question

'Our economy is facing major talent shortages, especially in oil and gas'. Picture: Contributed

'Our economy is facing major talent shortages, especially in oil and gas'. Picture: Contributed

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HAVING returned to Scotland recently on 1 October to head up the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) in Scotland, I have been monitoring the referendum debate.

Understandably, the political class are obsessed with the constitutional question. The economy comes into it and a skill usually gets big billing when there is a crisis. However in Scotland as a whole, we need much more awareness that it’s the skills of the people which will truly determine our destiny.

Scotland has a vibrant and growing economy. We outpace the UK in both growth and employment. Though that will look different depending on where you are in the skill/earnings pyramid. All over Scotland I am struck by the vibrancy and vitality of Scotland’s business base. Yet our economy is facing major talent shortages, especially in oil and gas. Our knowledge-based cities like Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow increasingly create jobs at the top end and the entry level of the labour market. There are many key jobs in the middle but they are technical jobs which require skills and knowledge. One of the better possible outcomes at Grangemouth was that had the it closed, many of the workforce would have been planting their steel toe caps on to oil rigs and fabrication plants. Their skills are very much in demand.

“What happens to numpties in a knowledge economy”

Some years ago when I took on the role of skills/learning adviser for CIPD I spoke at Caledonian University on the theme of “What happens to numpties in a knowledge economy”. It was a provocation based on a lot of labour market evidence and one observation: an angry, sweary wee guy on a bus shouting the odds because the driver didn’t know the stop he needed. The driver was expected to know stuff and be courteous and he wasn’t. It made me think of the employment options for such a man in an economy where interaction is everything. It might have been possible for him to do something ”menial”, if you don’t give a moment’s thought to what that involves. The short answer is he will flounder.

In reality there are no “numpty” jobs, only people unwilling or unsupported to learn and develop. Even the most basic road digging requires skills in using expensive tools and managing, for example, environmental impact. If it’s not done properly it’s not productive. Because of Scotland’s highly educated population we are likely to have some aspiring barristers working as baristas and competition in the coffee shop arena means they need to have smooth-as-silk customer service skills as well. However, those without skills or with the wrong skills need to understand that the only way up is to develop.

Grangemouth and Govan

As Grangemouth taught us and Govan threatens to, there is no permanence in the contemporary career, only transitions. Grangemouth is making the transition to a lower-cost, high productivity petrochemical plant. Govan will have to earn its bread within BAE’s global network, whatever the heated political debate. Scotland’s best sovereign fund is the bank of skills and capabilities it can grow, brilliant as it would be to be a cold climate Qatar.

So everybody at work in Scotland and is in transition. All of these transitions require support and challenge. The HR profession is the partner in these transitions for organisations, individuals and governments. Everyone needs to keep learning to keep earning. And it’s not just learning for the job. It’s learning how to lead people, how to engage and motivate and to develop new skills, as well as sometimes how to put up with jobs and build a ladder out of them. That is why it’s vitally important that government keeps focus on the skills agenda, and recent initiatives like the Wood Commission – which proposes rigorously revamping vocational learning – are major steps forward.

Whatever happens on 18 September next year, Scotland will need to keep its eye on the skills ball. The country’s skilled future is as important as that other vital question to be answered. CIPD Scotland is set to launch its new approach in Scotland in countrywide events today and tomorrow. We don’t think there is a bigger issue.

• Dr John McGurk is head of CIPD Scotland, www.cipd.co.uk. He will speak on skills and the labour market at The Scotsman Conferences event on the Independence White Paper on 3 December, www.scotsmanconferences.com

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