One of the topics that emerged at the October 2011 ConnectingHR Unconference was the tendency for employees to be seen as consisting only of their recent history. As one un-participant put it: “You’re not even your CV; you’re your last job description”. At the time, I was reminded of the opening lines of an old Prefab Sprout song:

You surely are a truly gifted kid
But you’re only as good as
The last great thing you did …”

Typically for its writer (Paddy McAloon), the song is open to interpretation: it could be addressing religion, family relationships or simply – if that’s the word – the human condition. Were they aware of an obscure album track from 1985, however, I suspect many people would currently be tempted to supply a more literal reading.

Given their current peak (which may yet be surmounted), unemployment among 18-24 year olds is a pressing topic, with press coverage talking of a lost generation. Current figures are certainly cause for concern, and not just for those affected, although the tone of the reportage – which occupies an emotion range between fearful and alarmist – is less nuanced that the detailed figures. There’s an element of ‘truthiness’ at play – a word and concept I’ve recently come across having been passed a copy of Justin Webb’s Notes on Us and Them by my ASK colleague, Chris Rogers (who’s blogged recently on another thought inspired by the book). For those not up to speed with contemporary American satire, here’s Webb’s description:

Truthiness was a mock-word introduced by [American comedian Stephen] Colbert when the Bush administration was in its pomp to describe a truth that was not based on facts but was felt in the gut.”

Though the ‘facts’ are indeed nuanced – the 1.02m unemployed young people include full-time students seeking part-time work, participation in post-16 education is far greater than in previous decades, and unemployment in this age is traditionally higher than the population as a whole (as people move between – often temporary – roles before establishing ‘steady work’) – they are still, however, high. Even as a 51 year old onlooker with no children, my gut responds as much as my head in response. Not least when a CIPD Press Release becomes the lead story on the Today programme, as happened this Monday.

Graduating into a recession 30 years ago, the feelings of on one hand being asked to offer experience when I was in no position to have acquired any (having elected to pursue the promises of higher education) and on the other hand being ‘over-qualified’ remain surprisingly fresh. But while the scenario may have returned, the broader situation is very different. Today’s young graduates are in a world where their ‘achievements’ are less remarkable, and the rungs of the labour market ladder and its ‘food chain’ are not in the same alignment. The glut of graduates pursue scarce opportunities that would once have gone to those with A Levels, while sixth-form school leavers pursue jobs for the unqualified. Work itself, when it is found, has become more temporary, more part-time, more transitory: the watchword is ‘flexible’, though how much further we can expect the young and (allegedly) hopeful to bend over backwards remains to be proven.

I can also recall the recession ten years after my graduation, when my role (the first permanent job I’d been appoint to) including hiring temporary staff to process the Student Loan applications of the cohort below them. The sheer quantity of applicants, all eminently capable, was alarming and depressing. How should I pick who to shortlist?

Mindful that past performance is not a great indicator of the future – a lesson our economic forecasters are currently grappling to (re)learn – I did not simply select those with some work experience. I chose those that had addressed the actual job specification – although the time demands of endless adjusting a CV for each low-pitched job occurred to me even then (and was also picked up at the ConnectingHR Unconference) – and could write a coherent and relevant covering letter. All those I interviewed were perfectly capable, so selection was on the basis of their ability to work with (ok, for) me and together as a team. But it was also on the basis that they showed promise: while I could offer no guarantee, there were occasional vacancies elsewhere in the University that might provide those with potential with a more permanent opportunity, and a chance to demonstrate more than efficiency and endurance. (For those tempted by the truthiness of the ‘today’s graduates are so unskilled’ argument, Adam Axon offers an interesting challenge in a recent blog post.)

One reason ‘you’re your last job description’ resonated so powerfully with me was the example of one young woman I employed back then. Initially graduating with a BEd degree, she’d taught for two years before realising that teaching was not each vocation. Deciding that being a mediocre teacher would serve neither her nor her potential pupils, she’d completed a Masters degree – and then found herself working for her father’s small business, filling empty bottles with ant killer. Her covering letter had been bold and honest enough to say that she was not bitter about her situation, but that she simply wanted the opportunity to put at least some of her education to use. This being the 1990s, the public had paid for it but – unless you were a taxpayer with a serious ant infestation – were getting no return.

So how are HR recruiters to act in 2011? No HR function can single-handedly change the economy or ‘solve the problem’. We have more young people chasing opportunities than we have opportunities to offer. But I can’t help but think that their selections have an impact. Faced with a multitude of applicants with little or no experience, favouring those with limited or irrelevant experience over those with none disadvantages those with great potential but only qualifications to offer. Favouring those with the highest level of qualifications, meanwhile, exacerbates the devaluation of qualifications generally.

Even favouring those with the greatest potential may not help greatly if the opportunity will be transient – as there is an ever-greater likelihood will be the case. (HR Review has earlier this week published a blog post with the title “Will the ‘gig economy’ be the death of HR?”) It’s a thought-provoking read, as the following brief extract hopefully illustrates:

Here is a not-so-radical future scenario: As HR services are increasingly provided by individuals who operate under the auspices of independent businesses and as tenures in traditional forms of employment continue to shorten, employee-employer relationships necessarily become less relationship- and more transaction-based.”

The evolving economy and its labour market don’t just impact on individual employees – and the individual unemployed. The social implications have not gone uncommented – today’s Times leader article, for example, raises the spectres of social unrest, alcohol and drug abuse – but the implications for organisations have attracted less scrutiny. Certainly, that current god – flexibility – will be increasingly well served, but surely at a price of short-termism? Recruitment is, or certainly should be, the first stage of organisational talent management strategy. The old argument that you should manage things but lead people is not the only objection to be raised: if you’re going to manage talent – and it’s hard to see how you’re going to improve an organisation’s future prospects if you don’t – you need to keep it long enough to give not just the talent but the organisation the opportunity to do so.

In hard times, the human response of self-protection is both common and understandable (although I draw the line at adjectives like ‘laudable’), but retreating is an unfortunate response. It doesn’t matter which direction you choose, the only place we’re all going to wind up in is the future. And the route we take has more than a little influence on the terrain we’ll find when we get there.

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