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Is Brexit pushing talent acquisition out of control? And is that a bad thing?

I’ve reached that august stage in life whereby news relating to next year’s pension’s dashboard launch is strangely alluring. Hush my beating heart, but from next year, we will be able to log onto a dashboard which tracks all the various bits of savings we have, in theory, accrued over the years, including both personal pensions and those through the government. The idea is that we are able to make an educated guess as to when we might, financially, be able to retire. It provides us with clarity, with reassurance and control.

In theory, the explosion of human resources analytics and performance metrics should provide similar levels of clarity and control to the talent acquisition function. Whilst in many cases, this is indeed beginning to happen, one particular event has turned assumptions, predictability, roadmaps and, certainly, control upside down. Let’s hear it then for our old friend, Brexit.

Some of Brexit’s initial consequences appear at best counter intuitive.

For instance, it’s a sad irony that the demographic most likely to vote for the country to remain within the EU – younger voters – is now being penalised as a result of Brexit-induced employer caution. News from High Fliers in mid January suggested that rather than the forecast 10% rise in graduate recruitment predicted for 2017, employers faced with the doubt and ambiguity of Brexit, ended up hiring 5% fewer graduates than they had in 2016.

There is similar apparent perversity from a geographical perspective. Again, London was one of the UK regions most keen to remain within the EU. Fascinatingly, Lord O’Neill’s recent speech at Davos, in which he talked about global growth providing a shock absorber for the economic damage likely to be inflicted by Brexit, also referenced an interesting shift in the UK’s regional performance dynamics.  London has been replaced as the chief engine of growth in the country by some key regional centres, with the north west being particularly prominent. He referenced London’s Brexit-influenced skill shortages as contributing to such change. London’s employers have on average four times the percentage of EU workers within their employee base than other parts of the country – with all the inherent retention challenges this now points to.

Just this week, the Times reported that key City employers were lobbying the government to provide protection in terms of Brexit negotiations, in the light of the fact that the last decade has seen the proportion of City workers who come from continental Europe rise from 8% to 18%.

It feels, then, a cruel twist that the parts of the country – London – as well as the parts of its population – the young – who least wanted Brexit, appear to be amongst those most likely to be punished by it.

This lack of control came through very clearly in a fascinating piece of research I have just completed via a series of interviews with some of the UK’s key talent acquisition professionals. And one more sincere shout-out to them too – they know who they are.

(And here’s a link to the full research – https://employerbrandingadvantage.files.wordpress.com/2018/01/how_brexit_is_shaping_our_talent_v3.pdf)

Amongst a number of key takeouts, was the sense that Brexit had had the effect of devaluing sterling in relation to other key currencies. This means that UK companies are more likely to be the acquired rather than the acquirers in any forthcoming M&A activity.

Neither too should Brexit be viewed in isolation. It is one more interwoven challenge facing successful talent acquisition. And regardless of the undoubted caution and doubt that Brexit has wrought, the UK labour market appears not to have noticed. The ONS in January reported a rise of 102,000 people in work in the quarter ending in November, against a forecast drop of 12,000. At the same time, the number of advertised vacancies in the economy rose by 12% on a year-on-year basis.

To put the last point in perspective, between October and December last year, there were 810,000 vacancies (what the ONS calls ‘positions for which employers are actively seeking to recruit outside their business or organisation) across the country. That is 60,000 more than a year previously and the highest figure since comparable records began in 2001.

(I’d suggest that ‘actively seeking’ are the key words in this paragraph).

If, in the middle of last year, Universum suggested that the global labour market was weighted 92% in favour of the candidate, then this percentage can only have grown.

However, whilst it feels as though the talent acquisition community is firmly at the receiving end of Brexit and its recruitment implications, there are opportunities being created along with the challenges.

As the Economist from last month put it – ‘As Brexit approaches and the economies of the EU grow faster than Britain’s, the squeeze on the labour market is likely to tighten. Although some firms are taking action, most industries look unprepared. Many bosses are still taking a wait-and-see approach. They are running out of time’.

But for me, such challenge throws up new opportunities. Brexit is just one more factor fundamentally shifting our relationship with work. People are working more flexibly, from home, from coffee shops, from laptops. They are working flexi-time, part-time, zero hours, all with a side hustle to go, sir. They are taking ownership like never before of how they work, when they work, why they work and with whom they work.

We can call this disruption the Uber-fication of the workplace if we like, but the fixed parameters of the employer-employee relationship are shifting and breaking down, with Brexit a key (but by no means sole) influencer. The idea from McKinsey of the organisation as a living organism rather than a fixed machine comes through here.

(Interestingly, the pension dashboard referenced at the start is partly the result of people moving from one employer to another, and therefore from one pension scheme to another, with growing regularity).

And for talent acquisition professionals, the answer does not lie in existing playbooks and roadmaps. This is new territory, without precedent. There is no text book to refer to. This is not about waiting-and-seeing but in showing intent, showing urgency, showing imagination, showing an understanding of both internal and external talent audiences. Of listening to such audiences and responding to what they seek from employment and employers. What motivates them, what they want from a career, what they want from an employer and delivering that. Delivering that through relevant, interesting, measurable channels, with energy, authenticity, imagination and sustainability.

If employees are adopting a more agile, more organic approach to employment, shouldn’t employers adopt a similar thought process?

With the sorts of professionals and candidates who will make a difference to businesses across the country either in increasingly short supply or likely to be eyeing a move back to Paris or Frankfurt or Turin. If talent acquisition professionals can no longer use their employer brand to take control, they can use it to take the initiative.

So, the two key phrases in this piece – waiting-and-seeing and actively seeking.

How will you respond to what Brexit both promises and threatens?