Dwyer Dwells On.. The skills boundary

Posted on 2 May 2008 by The Manufacturer

Skills shortages are just half the story. It’s time for women to step up to the crease, says John Dwyer

Over half southern England’s manufacturers are being forced to look abroad for the skilled people they need, says the southern region of what we used to call the Engineering Employers’ Federation (EEF).
I cannot get my head round this perennial ‘skills shortage’. When I looked at this for the Institution of engineering & Technology last year the clearest sign of market failure was that, despite employers’ grumbles, engineers’ pay rates weren’t rising. And many failures to fill vacancies stemmed from the cack-handed way employers used recruitment agencies.
But there’s another thing. The skills-shortage stories are beginning to have the ring of world war one’s ‘servant problem’. One southern employer opined that: “The employment laws in the UK are completely ridiculous. The amount of power employees actually have stops us being competitive.”
But if it’s the employment laws providing maternity and paternity leave, annual paid holidays, and shorter than health-destroying working hours he’s thinking of, isn’t it just possible that they’re what make the difference between living in a civilised country and, say, Stalin’s Russia?
Meanwhile, he should also remember the iron law of supply and demand, that if a skill is in short supply the holders of that skill can pick and choose who they work for. So if I were among the 44 per cent of chemistry graduates, 53 per cent of biology graduates, 20 per cent of engineering graduates, and 19 per cent of computing graduates who happen to be women, I would think twice about working for such a dinosaur.
Let’s pick that out. The ugly truth is that, despite the privations employers have suffered in the name of ridding this country of sex discrimination, 54 per cent of new companies registered in 2007 had no female directors at all.
In 1991, 43 per cent of all directors were women. Last year the figure had slumped to 35 per cent. And, at the recent Quoted Company Awards, London’s Grosvenor House Hotel expected so few women that it shut the ladies’ toilets that evening.
This shambles is a problem not just for women, not just for the firms who have failed, for whatever reason, to avail themselves of the talents of half the population, but for our economy.
Some believe women themselves must take some of the blame. Emma Harrison, chairman of training and development group A4e, is quoted in The Observer as accusing the sisters of clinging to job security, “instead of acting on their own entrepreneurial instincts and taking risks.
Women are not doing their share – they don’t think they have to.” Harrison, once an engineer in Sheffield’s steel industry, says it’s up to women themselves to seize control and ‘do their share’. Women generally, she says, “don’t have enough gumption: their aspirations are all a bit weedy. It’s as if they’re waiting for permission. But no one’s going to give you permission. Business is about putting yourself forward.”
All the same, men and women do tend to behave in different ways. And though some women can succeed by being tougher than the men, that kind of success is a kind of defeat – it’s success on men’s terms, and fails to acknowledge that female high flyers may have something more insightful to offer than mimicked alpha-male behaviour.
Nor is there much you can do about the universal human inability to see ourselves as others see us. Esther Haines of Cambridge’s Women in Science, Engineering and Technology Initiative pointed out recently that some men are
not conscious of how their behaviour affects their female colleagues.
That too, surely, is a failing just as common in the other direction, as Haines acknowledges: “Women need to be more aware of how they present themselves. They need to work out the difference between being aggressive and
standing up for themselves.”
The problem is that male-dominated culture has been there so long it will take years to shift.
And since the culture is set by those at the top of the organisation, you can guess that the boys quite like things the way they are and aren’t in any hurry to change.
No matter how bad the ‘skills shortages’ get.