The UK labour market has undergone some fundamental changes in recent years, fuelled by technological advancements and the rise of the gig economy. Many employees nowadays no longer just want a job that pays their bills but are hungry for a professional challenge that boosts their career prospects. The gig economy provides these ambitious employees with far more choice than ever before, allowing them to align their professional interests much closer to the business needs of their potential future employers.
Over 1.1 million people in the UK are currently working as part of the gig economy, with numbers expected to rise significantly over the next few years. It is an attractive market for experienced candidates that are looking for their next ‘gig’. With low unemployment rates and the ongoing skills shortage that leaves up to one in four jobs unfilled, job-seekers in the UK are spoiled for choice. Highly-skilled candidates in particular are sought after as companies rush to recruit top talent before their competitors do.
A shift in power
People now have unprecedented power to shape their new roles and many want to change the way they work. This commonly includes greater freedom and variety in their positions as well as increased flexibility around where and when they work. However, the way people want to work in the gig economy isn’t the only thing that is changing. The whole nature of the work they do is being transformed. For many, their professional development and the skills they can learn in their new jobs are key decision-making criteria.
Businesses often find it difficult to adapt to the new reality of the gig economy. Many don’t necessarily understand the aspirations employees have and are struggling to update their training and development programmes. With people now changing jobs, and even careers, multiple times during their lifetimes, investing in current employees might seem like a waste of resources, knowing that they will ultimately move on. However, this is a false economy and does neither the employee nor the employer any good. Businesses and prospective employees should have an open and honest conversation at the recruitment stage about their expectations towards each other. This will provide clarity for both parties from day one about what skills an employee wants to learn during his tenure and how the business can create a role that supports their aspirations.
Putting skills first
Companies should have an interest in their employees’ progression that goes beyond just the immediate business benefits. Every effective organisation should want their staff to leave the company more knowledgeable than when they joined. To achieve this in a climate of high talent fluctuation, businesses will have to readjust their training and development programmes, and focus on giving their employees high-value and transferable skills. Soft skills like business acumen, effective communication, management or leadership skills need to form the cornerstones of every modern training and development programme.
As recent research, including the Taylor review of modern working practices, has found, these skills are highly-desirable and significantly increase an employee’s value to an organisation. While the onus of updating training programmes lies with an organisation, talent development isn’t the sole responsibility of the employer. Employees need to play an active part too by staying curious, identifying new opportunities to expand their knowledge, suggesting relevant competencies, and being proactive about how they will acquire new skills. It is therefore essential that, during their tenure, employees and businesses ensure their thinking is aligned if they want to have a fruitful relationship in the long term that works for everyone involved. This means keeping professional development a key priority and regularly addressing it during performance reviews and check-ins.
A new breed of employees
The gig economy is fundamentally changing the attitudes candidates have towards their jobs as “lifers” are becoming increasingly rare. Most people nowadays stay with a company for three to five years. Meanwhile, a new breed of employees is emerging that sees people return to a previous workplace after a couple of years. These so-called “boomerang employees” leave their jobs to gain new skills and progress their career elsewhere – but are then happy to return to a familiar environment afterwards.
Modern organisations should see the disruptions the gig economy is causing to the labour market as an opportunity to evolve and re-evaluate their employee practices, rather than as a threat. Investing in employee development is never a waste of resources, as long as the training programmes reflect current business needs and the realities of the labour market. A shift in focus towards teaching more soft and transferrable skills will benefit both companies and their employees in the long-term, regardless of whether they stay, leave or make a comeback somewhere down the line.
Phil Sheridan is the senior managing director at Robert Half UK.