Jennifer MacKenzie: Highlands needs to keep youth and talent

Bacon roll days are just one of the ways that Highland firm tries to keep workers. Picture: TSPL
Bacon roll days are just one of the ways that Highland firm tries to keep workers. Picture: TSPL
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Historically, the Highlands and Islands as an area has struggled to keep its local youngsters and to stem the flow from the area of all the terrific teenagers produced by our schools.

And they are terrific. As a business owner I have employed many youngsters in their first part-time office job after school.

Fifth and sixth-year pupils from our local academy have done a few hours after school. They’ve worked full time during holidays, gone off to university, come back in the holidays. After completing university they’ve worked before going off travelling the world.

We’ve even been lucky enough to have some of this bright, brilliant talent choose to come back and work for us permanently.

But this is not common.

There is a ‘youth drain’ from the region that continues to happen. It affects the skills that business has access to. And if any do come back, it is often to work for large employers, as it is frequently seen as risky to work in small businesses – often by ­parents – in an area where more than half the population is employed in the public services.

As a business, we’ve had to open an office in Edinburgh to get the IT skills we need. That’s extra cost and not ideal as a Highland ­business ­looking to support the ­Highland economy.

So how do we help them to remain here or return after their venture south?

As an employer and ­someone who wants to see the Highland economy strengthen and grow, it is important to me to make the Highlands a vibrant place with the right kind of culture to both retain and attract back the brightest of our youth.

As employers, what can we do? Most importantly, it’s not all about salaries. They are important as staff want to feel valued and respected and deserve to be paid accordingly.

However, with our young team, I’ve learnt that they really do want (need) to be personally thanked for work they have done, they don’t want to be involved in office politics, they want to work somewhere ‘nice’, friendly, ethical, and fun.

So, do you need to build in slides with ball pools at the bottom? Pool tables and bean bags in the meeting rooms? I guess you could, but it’s not what we’ve done.

We have done more simple things like tea, coffee, biscuits on tap, Thursday morning bacon roll time, staff team days, entering team charity events, half-day Friday once a month for everyone, and ­birthdays off. As we grow we are able to offer more but these things don’t, and haven’t, cost us a lot.

This year we are taking a step forward on our ­‘ethical’ mission-led journey, which is clearly printed on our office wall for all to see. We have taken on a ‘charity of the year’, opting for Mary’s Meals as they are Scottish-based like us with an international reach, helping those in ­education.

This is important to us all, to give back after our most successful year in business ever, and hopefully use this success to help those less ­fortunate.

Jennifer MacKenzie is MD of TEFL Org UK, Inverness.