Preventing a talent drainApril 23, 2012

"Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare" - A Japanese proverb may seem an unusual starting point for a discussion on the future of HR, but without sugar coating the pill too often we encounter HR professionals that lack a big vision preferring to operate pragmatically within a single enterprise. Imagine a scenario where we face a skills drain from an entire region, with educated graduates and skilled employees relocating or lost to the active workforce through early retirement or unemployment. In this scenario the role of the HR director seeking to attract skilled employees or retain their workforce takes on a vital new dimension. What vision and action can a single HR director take to help ensure there is a talent pool to draw upon? This is not a hypothetical situation; this is the reality facing communities and regions both within the UK and internationally.

Macroeconomic factors are driving unprecedented levels of labour movements between international markets, assisted by deregulation and the removal of border restrictions. According to the International Organization for Migration's 'World Migration Report 2010', the number of international migrants was estimated at 214million. This staggering statistic reinforces the fluidity of world labour markets and ability and willingness of people to move for new employment opportunities. When faced by structural employment shifts, such as the decommissioning of a major power station or factory closure, what can an individual HR director do to prevent a talent drain from the indigenous workforce?  When a region is affected by a major structural employment shift, those involved in HR and training need to work together to help the workers affected by redundancy develop the necessary skills to find new employment opportunities, or risk a devastated regional labour market.

How can you prevent a talent drain?  

The answer could be found in the introduction of Marco Talent Management (MTM) a new paradigm to prevent a skills drain from a region or country. In this 'vision' public and private stakeholders are brought together to establish an early warning system should the business be in trouble. Then a two pronged campaign can be launched one 'action' strand to ensure there are alternative employment opportunities, by boosting existing enterprise in the region or driving inward investment. The second 'action' component of the pincer movement is the MTM - training and development schemes to ensure the indigenous workforce have the appropriate transferable skills to move into a new industry or start their own enterprises.

This vision of an MTM sees HR directors sharing intelligence, creating an early warning system relating to skills shortages and dynamic market insights, which are shared with public sector stakeholders in regionalised working groups. This will reduce the visibility lag for the public sector, where regional authorities simply don't have these insights and identify the issues 'after the event' when business rates fall as a result of rising company failures or the number of localised benefit claimants rises. The public sector in this model also has a duty to feed information to local businesses if they have advanced warning of information that will affect the economy of a region.

Developing a strategy

The sharing of insight into market changes is all well and good, however the real challenge is developing an 'action' strategy to cope with the situation and reverse the trend, preventing a long term skills drain. Bringing together private and public sector stakeholders in a working group is a valuable first step.  For private operators there is always a desire to keep competitive advantage, but in the long-term there is little benefit of being the only business standing in an economically and skills deprived region.

Proposing the establishment of working groups is just the first step. These groups must agree workable and measurable deliverables and generate clear outputs. There are a plethora of committees, bodies and panels across the public and private sector that are little more than talking shops. What is ultimately needed is action to prevent a talent drain.  Practical measures and recommendations evolving from a regional MTM programme could include:

•    Attracting European or national government resourcing to fund economic regeneration programmes. These funds can be used to stimulate organic business growth within a region or attract inward investment.

•    Resource sharing - bring together private and public enterprise to fund training programmes for complementary industries. If a major employer is located in a region, or is establishing a new facility, what support services will this business require and do employees in the region have the skills to work for these companies. If a manufacturing plant is being established, are there local transport and logistics companies with suitably trained employees? Can companies band together to fund training schemes?  

•    Intelligence sharing - establish early warning systems so businesses can adapt and diversify. If a company with skilled employees is set to rationalise their business and make a number of people redundant, why not highlight to other organisations this talent pool will soon become available before they enter the open labour market. There are reputational and commercial considerations, but it can be argued if a firm is making employees redundant, in terms of CSR and positive publicity, it is far better to say you worked with another company to create a 'skills transfer' than made workers redundant.

•    Cooperative promotion - leverage simple economies of scale. If a number of firms in a region fund a move to attract investment from overseas, say for example targeting funds from India. The costs of promoting the region and a range of businesses can be significantly reduced if companies share resource, rather than launching individual moves to attract investment from these markets.

Case study -  Wylfa and Trawsfyndd nuclear power stations

This is not just a theoretical model; in North Wales a new pilot has been established, which will hopefully serve as an exemplar for this MTM programme, funded by the European Social Fund through the Welsh Government. The region is set to lose two large employers that are key components of the regional infrastructure when the Wylfa and Trawsfyndd nuclear power stations are decommissioned. The 'Shaping the Future' scheme is bringing together businesses; the indigenous workforce, local public sector bodies and expert external consultants to prevent a skills drain from the region - a true MTM programme. Identifying in advance the structural employment shift, the project managers have been able to put in place a training scheme for up to 1,200 high skilled individuals, who will leave employment at the power stations, while they are still in post.

It also delivers the other half of the pincer movement providing a regional platform for inward investment, with collaborative working between six local councils and private enterprises. It has also deployed a network of influential ambassadors to promote North Wales as a great place to do business, highlighting the highly skilled indigenous workforce and that there are monies available for companies relocating to the region to ensure people are trained to meet the specific needs of their enterprise. This combination of activity is designed to prevent a 'brain drain' from North Wales.

Developing a new model 'vision' for interactive engagement is always going to be a challenge particularly when stakeholders have vested interest and commercial advantage they do not wish to give up.  However, if parties recognise the value of working together to prevent a skills drain from a region then implementing the appropriate 'action' to prevent this should be feasible. In our modern economy and globalised labour market there are challenges that a single business simply cannot address. HR directors increasingly need to embrace a macro view of the market, taking a wider strategic vision and engaging proactively far more with external stakeholders. Increasingly, we will see HR professionals involved in establishing programmes and schemes for talent management on a scale not previously realised, an exciting future for all involved in this sector.

This article was originally featured on The People Bulletin and can be found here.