Why the British attitude to skills development is "a profound competitive disadvantage"

British companies could end up with a dysfunctional workforce if they don't urgently change the way they develop staff, James Kelly, CEO of Corndel tells MT.

by Paul Simpson
Last Updated: 18 Sep 2023
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Coaching is not a perk, it is a right. That is the view of James Kelly, co-founder and CEO of Corndel, one of the UK’s foremost leadership and development agencies.

Founded in 2016, the company has grown rapidly enough to employ more than 200 coaches and, earlier this month, opened its own college in London to train students in the human skills he believes they will need to compete as technology – particularly AI – revolutionises work.

Obviously, there is a certain degree of self-interest in Kelly’s argument but he makes a compelling, urgent case for organisations to invest in - and develop - staff at every level. “The idea that employers treat people as a commodity - recruiting them when they’re young and less expensive and not investing in their development because you assume most of them will move on after five years – is anathema to me,” he says.

Employers must recognise, he argues, that this model is based on demographic trends that no longer apply. “Almost every developed economy, particularly in the West, is having to cope with the fact that the proportion of the population in work has declined”, he says.

Indeed, consultants PwC estimate that the proportion of 15-24-year-olds in the British population will fall from 12% to 11% by 2043. That might sound marginal but, over the same period, the percentage of Britons aged 65 and over will soar from 18% to 24%.

The even worse news for British employers is that various surveys have consistently reported that many young people - some studies suggest as many as 250,000 – have decided they don’t want regular work. Economic inactivity among young men and women is already on the rise, with 18.1% of 16-24-year-old Britons not in education, employment or training at the end of 2022. At the same time, as Kelly points out, there are around 1.2m jobs unfilled in the UK.

Against this backdrop, the traditional British attitude to skill development becomes, in Kelly’s eyes, a profound competitive disadvantage: “It’s often the case that senior executives get one-on-one coaching whereas everyone else is expected to make do with training online. That is pretty polarising.” (At the companies Corndel works with, the norm is for an employee to get an hour’s one-on-one coaching every two or three weeks.)

This attitude is even more damaging because, he says, the pandemic raised some profound questions in people’s minds about how they work, why they work and the meaning of their work. “The worst kind of training is box-ticking, that’s just a waste of everyone’s time and resources. People want to work somewhere that helps them develop in their role and in their career.”

Indeed, Corndel’s latest report on workplace training in which 56% of those surveyed said they would leave their role if they didn’t get the right level of development support. (Note: other surveys are available and have made the same point as emphatically, if not more so.)

Kelly’s concern is that, given the way that many Britons are presently being educated and trained they will not be fit for a twenty-first century workplace. “If you look at the Pisa  international education rankings, the UK’s 15-year-olds perform well on what they know but not so well on what they can do. In other words, our strength is retention of information, but what will really matter in future, is not what you know - AI can take care of what – but how you apply what you know.”

If nothing changes, he warns, many British employers could end up with a dysfunctional workforce where the generations at either end of the demographic spectrum find it hard to communicate with each other, let alone collaborate.

“Think of it as a Venn diagram. In the circle on the right you have tech skills and in the circle on the left you have human skills. If your organisation is to succeed, you need those circles to overlap.

“This is something of a generalisation, but the people entering work today are easily the most tech savvy generation we have ever had, but they are also one of the least confident when it comes to having conversations, building relationships with people and understanding the human dynamics of work.

"The generation which is now in the middle of their careers have the opposite problem: they understand the human side, but they are often tech-phobic. Companies that invest in their people, and encourage them to coach each other, will be better placed to succeed.” You might even say they could become Venn masters.

Corndel has coached staff and managers at some of the UK’s best known employers, including Asda, BP, Bupa, Fidelity, John Lewis, NSPCC, and Visa. Kelly has drawn on his  diverse CV, which includes spells as a parliamentary researcher, an adviser at the Ministry of Work and Pensions, and experience at PwC, IBM and Deloitte, to work with his team to address one of the most common objections to investing in training and development: can you prove that it makes a difference?

You can, he says, if you trust the data on the impact on employee motivation, retention, confidence levels and promotions which Corndel shares with customers. One reason he founded the business was, “there were so many poor quality learning and development schemes out there”.

The government’s apprenticeship levy also disrupted the training landscape (in part “because too often, with government, you get a race to the bottom” on budgets) but he firmly believes in apprenticeships as a means of developing the skills on both sides of that Venn diagram.

If anything, he says, AI will make learning and development in the workplace more important, not less. “If you have smaller teams of white collar workers - as you may well have with AI – it is crucial they can collaborate and communicate effectively.”

He also encourages employers to start addressing this technology - and sharing knowledge about it - now: “If you don’t engage with it, all you are left with is fear.”

In a nutshell, Kelly’s challenge to the leaders of UK Plc is very simple: many of you are talking about the urgent need to transform your organisation, but how exactly do you hope to achieve that if you don’t transform your people?

Illustration created with Getty Images