Britain doesn't have (enough) talent: Alistair Cox, Hays

Q&A: The CEO of the FTSE 250 recruitment firm talks Brexit, the talent gap and his journey from Norwegian oil rigs to London headhunting.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 01 Dec 2016

Alistair Cox became CEO of FTSE 250 recruitment firm Hays in 2007 after a highly varied career spanning four decades and three continents.

An aeronautical engineer by training, Cox started off in what’s now BAE Systems, before spending (deep breath here): five years in Norwegian oil exploration, four years at McKinsey in London (after doing an MBA at Stanford), five years running the Asian business for cement firm Blue Circle in Kuala Lumpur and five years in charge of outsourcing tech firm Xansa back in the UK, before turning his attention to recruitment. 

Oil, cement, outsourcing... how on earth did you end up in the recruitment game?

Well I met the then chairman Bob Lawson, who described the issue Hays had in this way: we’ve got a people-centric business that doesn’t yet understand the impact that tech will have on the industry, we have a brand that is either not well recognised or well regarded outside of the UK, and that’s got an international business but still thinks like a UK business. I looked at that recipe and - putting aside the fact that it’s recruitment – I thought international business, that’s what I do, technology enabled business, that’s what I do, and people centric businesses, well they have their own challenges and they’re very good fun.

You’ve seen a lot of the world. Do you recommend it as a career move?

There’s a world of difference understanding how business works in a different environment between someone who moves and works there for a few years, and someone who flies in and out. Even if you do it regularly you don’t even scratch the surface.

Going and working in a different country is one of the best things you can do in your career. International experience – learning how to operate in a completely different culture – is invaluable. I don’t think I’d be able to do my job without it. If you get the opportunity, take it, wherever you’re coming from and wherever you’re going to.

Read more career advice from Cox and other CEOs here

Recruitment is a canary in the coal mine when it comes to impending economic disasters. How bad is Brexit going to be?

We were already seeing these slow, modest declines [in recruitment]. What then happened with the Brexit vote was a drop of around 10% in forward activity, things like jobs registered and interviews arranged, which is a bellwether on the health of the recruitment market. It’s a reasonably significant drop but it’s not the end of the world.

Since the end of June things have gone sideways – they have not continued to go down. We usually get seasonal spikes, and we’ve seen exactly the same trend this year, off a lower base. If you’d asked me the day after the referendum what could have happened to the UK, I’d have given an extremely wide range of possibilities, all of them negative by the way. I’d say where we are today is the best possible end of that spectrum.

Does the UK labour market have the necessary skills to meet business demand if we leave the Single Market?

I don’t think it has even today as part of the EU. There’s an insufficient supply of the right sort of skills in the British labour force to meet aggregate demand. The UK is not alone in this – you’d think Germany, Hays’s biggest market, would have enough engineers but the opposite is true, they have a massive shortage of engineers.

But if Britain wants to have a world class economy, it needs to have world beating, growing businesses, and I fail to see how it can do that if it doesn’t have world beating talent in those industries.

Of course it’s beneficial if any country becomes more self-sufficient in skills but that does mean we need to reorient our education system, looking at things like apprenticeship schemes to train young people and also retrain older workers throughout their careers. The issue is it will probably take us at least a decade to produce the output we actually need ourselves.

How is technology changing your industry?

What we do as a service and how we deliver it will evolve because of machine learning, but I do not see AI replacing human instinct.

The number one reason most people fail in new jobs in not because they couldn’t do the job but because they don’t culturally fit with the organisation. In many ways IT is helping my business to become even more relationship-driven. We can now automate a lot, which allows us to spend more time talking to people and to companies to see what makes them tick. I think it’s a good thing.

How do you recruit people for Hays itself?

Our model is to recruit fresh graduates or people who’ve had one or two jobs in a sales environment, but who haven’t worked in recruitment before. We put people through assessment centres in selection and then invest millions developing them into experts in their field.

I take great pride standing next to a new cohort of associates saying some of you will still be here in this company in 25 years, running large parts of the worldwide business. I say that with absolute certainty. Why do most people leave a job? Money’s often an issue but the number one reason is always career progression, and we have almost limitless career progression.


Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime