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How can Oxfordshire attract develop and retain world-class talented people?

A suggested ‘Oxford salary weighting’, the need to foster engagement between business and education and the value of investing in employee development were three key themes to emerge at the inaugural Oxfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership (OxLEP) Business Leaders’ Q&A event.

Written by: Andrew Baud Photography by: Chris Rowland

Over 50 senior leaders attended the Q&A event, which was hosted by British Bakels in Bicester. The experienced panel comprised:
Adrian Lockwood – Chair of Oxfordshire Skills Board (Panel Chair)
Nigel Tipple – Chief Executive, OxLEP
Pat Cole – Site Director, Abbott (Witney)
Paul Morrow – Managing Director, British Bakels
Simon Newton – Commercial Director, Darke & Taylor

Do Oxfordshire businesses have a problem recruiting skilled employees?

Nigel Tipple kicked off OxLEP’s first business leaders’ Q&A, highlighting the unique challenges posed by full employment.

He observed that Oxfordshire is fortunate to have less than 0.6% unemployment – with fewer unemployed people than vacancies being advertised across the county. Many of the jobs in the county are skilled and found within highly-specialised industries, meaning businesses are competing for talent in a competitive and often global marketplace.

The panel noted that there is increasingly-fierce competition between employers to attract employees at all levels within organisations.

They agreed that rather than expending huge resource bringing in ‘heavy hitters’, Oxfordshire needs to identify sustainable talent development initiatives that ensure a steady supply of skilled people from the local area.

During the discussion it emerged that companies that aren’t consumer-facing – despite having a global footprint – often struggle to develop a presence in the communities where they are located, especially if they are conservative about communications and are cautious about embracing social media.

Pat Cole observed that prior to recent ‘outreach’ efforts, Abbott had largely been regarded as simply “that big brown building” and many people in the community didn’t realise that the site employed hundreds of people.

In 2016, Abbott urgently needed to recruit 150 people and took the decision to host two open recruitment sessions to help people learn more about the business and the opportunities it offered. The effort paid off, with the events being attended by more than 450 people, many of whom secured jobs.

How do we attract the brightest young people?

There was considerable enthusiasm about the mutual benefits of partnership working with schools; where businesses can supplement career advice available from teachers and promote their own apprenticeship programmes. Paul Morrow spoke about how offering work experience had also helped young people contextualise their school work, students gaining a great understanding of the important role science plays in food manufacturing.

“What are you doing around social responsibility? What are you doing around the environment? So, do you really care or is it just something you write in your annual report?”
Pat Cole from Abbott emphasised the importance of following through on corporate social responsibility. Younger people are readily challenging companies’ credentials and employers need to be able to show how they deliver against their mission statements.

The attitudes of different generations towards employment were discussed, especially in respect of how employers can minimise the expense of people churn. Young graduates were perceived as less likely to buy into the culture of a business; they are ambitious and may regard their first job as a stepping stone – unless persuaded otherwise.

Nigel Tipple highlighted the experience of Nielsen in Oxford, who have found that a mixed cohort of graduates and apprentices led to improved retention rates.

There was a strong feeling, also reflected in comments from the audience, that young people should proactively consider vocational training opportunities and that university is not the only route to a successful career, especially with the development of degree level apprenticeships. A straw poll in the room revealed that around 35% of the business leaders attending had started out in vocational training.

“You can make promises in your interviews about your company’s policies, your development policies, flexible working and anything else that your employee wants to hear. But then you’ve also got to make sure that’s what you actually do in practice”
Paul Morrow stressed that companies need to deliver on promises to employees

How can we attract people, given Oxfordshire’s relative high cost of living?

The possible concept of a salary ‘weighting’ scheme – as a way of mitigating the high cost of living in the county – was something the panel felt may potentially struggle to work in practice.

There were concerns about whether it would be restricted to certain roles or industries, especially given that businesses are sometimes struggling to recruit for entry level positions.

Panellists also discussed the impact it would have on competitiveness, especially with businesses that have Oxfordshire based staff but operate across the country. The lack of competitiveness might ultimately deter investment and only serve to encourage businesses to relocate to lower-cost areas.

“We bring on apprentices and we train them. Some of those end up on the tools or managing sites, others come into the office and become estimators. Perhaps the best example is our MD, who has been with the company for over 40 years and is now running the business. It gives you a good sense that there really are good opportunities for progression”
Simon Newton spoke about the many progression opportunities for apprentices.

“If you put another £4,000 per head on a wage bill in Oxfordshire I don’t know many businesses would be able to afford it. This is something that has built up over many years in London, it’s market forces to a large extent.”
Nigel Tipple was concerned about the impact of an Oxford weighting on competitiveness.

Details of the next OxLEP Q&A event – with a focus on ‘Place’ – will be available via: www.oxfordshirelep.com/qandaevent.

To register your interest, please email Rob Panting – OxLEP Communications Manager – via: robert.panting@oxfordshirelep.com