Richard Shea, Managing Director, EMEA Search at Futurestep

British employers are increasingly coming under pressure from an inevitable force: time. Its relentless march doesn’t only yield innovations that change how entire markets work, rendering previously useful business capabilities redundant. It also gradually changes the face of the workforce, as older and more experienced employees retire.

The overlap between digital disruption and demographics is making the UK particularly vulnerable. This creates new imperatives for how both businesses and educational establishments approach the training and employment of the next generation.

Dangerous demographics…

The latest employment figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) have revealed the sharpest drop in the number of people in work in almost three years, with this figure falling by 56,000 towards the end of 2017. While this 0.2 per cent slip in the employment rate might not initially seem alarming, it reverses an employment boom that has been going on for some time.

There are powerful indications that this is likely a demographic issue: the employment slip was not accompanied by a corresponding rise in unemployment. In fact, this metric fell. Instead, it was the number of ‘economically inactive’ people that rose.

In a country where almost one in five people (18 per cent) are aged 65 and over, this points to the fact that with an ageing population, businesses are particularly vulnerable to the loss of their most experienced and skilled people to retirement.

… and digital disruption

 Social Media Strategist. UX Designer. Genius. Compare a jobs board in 2018 with its equivalent a decade ago, and you can’t help noticing that businesses require an entirely different skillset than they did previously. The age of digital disruption has seen the emergence of new business models, enabled by technology, that transform entire industries. With these new business models comes the need for different skillsets to make them work – yet more than three quarters of businesses lack the digital skills they require to do so.

This challenging state of affairs is confirmed in our own research series, The Talent Forecast, where we found that the competition for talent and the need to make quality hires are keeping talent professionals up at night.

The research also demonstrated how the ageing workforce is combining with digital disruption to create this anxiety. We found that two of the principal drivers for the talent shortage were a lack of candidates that have skills to move up the leadership pipeline and the sophistication of skills required for sector/niche roles.

The UK’s demographic challenge inevitably makes the first driver more acute as senior ranks are depleted by retirement, while the digital skills shortage aggravates the inability to find people capable of taking on specialist roles.


This increasingly tight job market puts the pressure on businesses to proactively attract the most valuable talent, which means taking a more strategic approach to hiring. While it can be tempting to make knee-jerk hires when facing immediate requirements, this approach will end up costing more in the long-run.

A more strategic approach to hiring can ensure that any organisational workforce challenges can be addressed – whether that be because the eventual hires have the right skills, are a strong cultural fit, have long-term potential, or hopefully all three.

To develop a strategic approach, businesses need to understand how potential employees make decisions. Our recent survey found that a staggering eight-in-10 professionals are unlikely to accept a job offer if they were treated poorly during the recruitment process.

This demonstrates how employer branding doesn’t just mean having a dedicated careers section on your website – it has to run through the core of every contact between the candidate and the company, much like effective conventional branding does with potential customers.

…and collaboration

However, this competitive market for skills also creates another imperative – to not only compete over a small pool of desirable talent, but also to grow that pool. Historically, the responsibility for upskilling the next generation has landed on education institutions. But a rapidly changing economy has meant that it’s never been more important for both private and public sector organisations to come together and promote the uptake of the relevant skills for the modern workplace.

Initiatives such as the introduction of T-levels last year made a welcome start at this. However, both educational institutions and businesses have much to gain from collaborating to create a pipeline of next generation talent.

For businesses, it represents an opportunity to upgrade their recruitment branding, sending the message that this is a business that cares about your personal skillset and the progression of your career, and that is willing to invest to equip you with the skills to succeed. For educational establishments, it ameliorates student’s anxieties around their future employability.

An ageing population and a digital skills shortage make for quite a menacing combination. However, with a more strategic approach to talent management and a more collaborative perspective on developing new skills, it can be addressed – by both businesses and educational establishments a like.

Richard Shea, Managing Director, EMEA Search at Futurestep

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