The Australian economy has changed dramatically since the global economic crisis of last year. Twelve months ago, Australian businesses were bemoaning the national skills crisis, today, companies are far more likely to be concerned with simply surviving the economic storm.
Businesses are making drastic changes to their internal structures, offering redundancies and shortened weeks, and all manner of cost-cutting measures that are having a profound effect on the size and behaviour of our recruitable workforce. So, with large numbers of skilled workers flooding the recruitment market, and skilled expats returning to our shores every day, does that signify the end of the Australian skills crisis? And in a climate where the first priority for many businesses is survival, how important is recruitment?
Is there still a skills shortage?
When it comes to the question of whether our skills crisis is coming to an end, it’s a complex question that can’t really be answered with a simple yes or no. At RossJuliaRoss we’re seeing an overall increase of about 30 percent of candidate flow compared to eight months ago, which suggests that the pressure on the marketplace is certainly being relieved. But we also need to take into account Australia’s unique economic conditions—its ageing population and declining birth rate, in particular—which contribute to a problem that’s unlikely to be solved overnight. Add to that the crisis of confidence that is experienced here as it elsewhere and the fear factor that is leading many workers to stay in their existing jobs (making it increasingly difficult for employers to lure the more desirable candidates), the challenges seem far from over.
This fear factor is likely to be contributing towards the shift in the balance of power between employees and employers that has been evident since the crisis unfolded. Now, with the climate so radically altered, that balance of power has shifted back to employers, who are demanding flexibility from their employees, such as shorter weeks, part time work or sabbaticals.
A future skills surplus?
Some speculators predict that by 2010 we will be seeing a skills surplus in Australia, and while this is likely to be true in some sectors, it won’t occur across the board.
Many people are pointing to the return of skilled expats to our shores from the larger markets of Europe, Asia and America as a solution to the skills crisis, but at this stage the numbers are simply not enough to alleviate the problem once and for all. It’s also important to keep in mind that there is an ongoing drain of our local talent too; Australian talent is seen as some of the best in the world, and markets in Asia in particular are still actively recruiting significant numbers our skilled workers.
How important is recruitment now?
So, in these volatile times when many businesses are simply trying to stay afloat, how important is recruitment? In a word, very. Any business that wants to stay competitive needs to remain focused on ongoing recruitment programmes. The key point is to adapt those programmes to fit in with the changing attitude and behaviour of the recruitable workforce, as well as any changes you have made to your own internal structure. Refining your staffing levels on a regular basis, promoting from within, hiring new talent and removing less productive workers are all part of keeping your machinery in competitive shape.
Retention is perhaps more important now than ever. Keeping hold of your best workers, and inspiring confidence and loyalty in difficult times requires considerable commitment on your part.
How to compete
So where does that leave Australian businesses who still find themselves vying for talent or attempting to lure desirable candidates away from existing roles? And how do smaller businesses compete with larger businesses to acquire their share of the market?
Businesses large and small are reanalysing their recruitment process and coming up with new and dynamic ways to lure new talent and keep hold of existing valuable team members. Instant job alerts via the web and SMS messaging, word-of-mouth recruiting, and attractive non-fiscal incentives are just some of the ways companies are beating the shortage.
Flexibility is key. Successful businesses continue to offer flexible working hours so that staff can fulfill out-of-work obligations. We are also seeing an increase in job-sharing and work-from-home placements. Not only are these conditions often attractive to potential employees, they may also appeal to businesses who are forced to refine their internal structures in order to stay afloat.
Trainees and apprentices
There is a renewed interest in the traineeship and apprenticeship market. Where once inexperience was seen as a real disadvantage, businesses are now recognising the many benefits of enthusiastic newcomers who can be trained from scratch to fulfill some of the less glamorous roles that can be harder to fill, but are often the roles that eventually lead to more senior roles.
Training is another area of increased activity. Given the investment of time and resources it can take to fill a role, businesses are recognising the benefits of providing staff with on-the-job training or funding external education (which can be partially Government-funded). Not only does the investment result in someone who is specifically trained to fill a certain role, but it can foster a sense of strong sense of loyalty by that staff member. While you can never guarantee that an employee will remain with you for as long as you might like, they are more likely to do so if they feel supported on their career path.
As part of cost-cutting initiatives, we have seen a flattening of managerial structure in many larger businesses across Australia. This can not only save a company money, it can foster better communication between the lower and upper levels of a business —staff feel it is easier to be heard and responded to, which can result in a better working environment.
—Julia Ross is managing director of RossJuliaRoss (www.rossjuliaross.com)
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