Race is on to meet Olympic challenge

When London hosts the Olympic Games in 2012, tourism is set to reach an all-time high, bringing with it huge commercial opportunities. Now that the bid team has secured the games, it is down to the UK’s workforce to make sure that everything – from buildings and infrastructure to hospitality and telecoms – is ready for the estimated 500,000 extra overseas visitors.

Rebecca Rhodes, skills director at the Learning and Skills Council, says forward planning, especially with training, is vital.

“HR teams need to understand how their industry will be affected and identify the skills needed,” she says. “This is a great opportunity to offer work placements and apprenticeships. Training young people now can help to build a skilled workforce for 2012. But my concern is that employers won’t plan early enough.”

The construction sector will be central to the success of the Olympics. According to the National Federation of Builders (NFB), 8.3bn of capital works are planned to support the games. Barry Stephens, chief executive of the NFB, has called for a detailed skills strategy in the sector.

“The risk is that we will fail to get the necessary influx of new skills to cope with the increased demand,” he says.

Pell Frischmann Consulting Engineers is working closely with the London Development Agency in the Lower Lea Valley, where the Olympic Village will be built (artist’s impression below). But its director, Peter Miller, says there is a serious shortage of high-calibre engineering design personnel.

“This is an inevitable consequence of the steady decline in the popularity of engineering degree courses in universities,” he says. “This is due to the perceived absence of glamour, both in terms of the work and the salaries.”

The dual HR challenge will be the retention of existing design staff and attracting new staff from a limited talent pool. This is an example of where good HR management could seriously drive commercial success. “Those firms that can demonstrate that they have sufficient skilled and stable resources on board are considerably more likely to win the work,” says Miller.

Big challenges

Ted Runciman, HR director at construction and management consultancy Currie & Brown, agrees that the sector will face some big challenges.

“Offering attractive salaries and overcoming the shortage in quantity surveyors will have to be addressed,” he says.

Runciman predicts that skills shortages will be plugged by overseas workers, and says that countries such as South Africa and India offer compatible qualifications for work in the UK.

However, Miller believes the Olympics may also attract home-grown talent.

“It could fuel a revival in the fortunes of engineering degree courses, particularly if it leads to improved salaries,” Miller says. “The HR legacy of the Olympics will hopefully be a highly trained and well-resourced construction sector, that will be a national asset,” he adds.

HR teams in the hospitality sector are also planning a significant recruitment drive. The British Hospitality Association (BHA) says that more than 17,000 new hotel rooms are planned for the capital by 2012. However, there is already a huge shortage of both skilled and unskilled workers, and the BHA predicts that thousands of extra staff will need to be recruited.

Joanne Tiffany, regional HR director for Hilton London, believes the games could put extra pressure on the current skills gaps in food and beverages staff. To help combat this, the Hilton is looking at working with food preparation colleges to train staff. The hotel group may also look outside the UK to bring in extra staff. “We can transfer staff from other Hiltons to help us through the busy period,” says Tiffany.

Helen Kaylan, head of HR at Novotel London hotels, says the sector must look outside the UK to guarantee a full workforce.

“This industry has high labour turnover and it’s hard to find new recruitment channels. When Sydney hosted the Olympics in 2000, it had a high unemployment rate, so unemployed people were trained to fill gaps. Here, there is very low unemployment, so we may have to look elsewhere,” she says.

Novotel is already recruiting from countries such as Poland and Romania to fill junior and manual positions. However, if more foreign workers are used, Kaylan says one HR challenge will be arranging suitable living quarters.

“With private accommodation so expensive in London, how do you house overseas workers?” she asks. “If you accommodate workers outside London, then there is the added problem of transporting them into the capital.”

Increased security will also be a consideration. “We will need to be vigilant about who we are bringing into London by conducting thorough checks on candidates, and risk assessments,” Kaylan adds.

Online recruitment increase

Simon Taylorson, commercial director at recruitment website Caterer.com, is predicting a sharp increase in online recruitment to fill hospitality posts.

“At the moment, there are 100,000 vacancies in the sector. Our customers are already desperately trying to recruit from the UK. Online recruitment will come into its own to help fill these vacancies and reduce the cost per hire,” he says.

The labour market could tighten further if jobseekers opt for volunteering roles during the games, affecting other sectors, such as retail. John Salt, website director at Retailchoice.com, says: “Thousands of volunteers will be needed and people who are between jobs may choose to take themselves out of the labour market because it could be fun to work for the Olympics.”

The day after the capital’s win was announced, the jubilation was immediately clouded by terrorist attacks in London. Martin Tiplady, head of HR at the Metropolitan Police, says it is now revising its security plans for the games.

“The level of security we can provide is one of the reasons why London won the Olympic bid,” he says. “Up until a few weeks ago, we had a great track record. But in light of recent events, we will need to revisit our strategy. This could mean that new roles will be created. We will certainly need to be fully resourced.”

Tiplady says it is too early to know what the impact will be on the workforce, but adds: “We have always had a very low rate of attrition and I don’t see that changing.”

Private security agencies will also need to step up their activities, according to Liz Ogden, HR director at G4S Security Services. She says that more than 6,000 security staff will be needed – all with differing levels of skills. “This will include people providing help with crowd control, access and verifying tickets,” she says.

Ogden says that G4S already recruits and retains large numbers of people to support a variety of events.

“Having a well-known employer brand is essential to attract and retain the best security personnel,” she says. “Many of our staff return year after year to work at well-known events, and feeling valued and involved is just as important to them as the financial rewards.”

Because security firms are used to recruiting and training large numbers of staff for one-off events, Ogden believes her HR team will be well prepared for the Olympics.

Filling skills gaps

Transport for London is also reviewing its staff requirements for the games. According to Hugh Sumner, director of Olympic transport at TfL, it will be focusing on keeping its existing workforce.

“Maintaining a team of diverse talents will ensure the consistency of our work, and we will be developing retention strategies to keep the team together,” he says.

More than £17bn will be spent on transport in London by 2012 and, like with other sectors, overseas workers could be used to fill any skills gaps.

“Delivering major infrastructure projects means that we are already looking abroad for certain skills and there may be the need to do so again in the run up to the games,” says Sumner. As for telecoms, contracts have not yet been announced, but BT is currently responsible for a massive infrastructure overhaul. A new £10bn phone network is due to be completed in 2008-09, and £40m has already been committed to installing a communications system in the Olympic Village itself.

And BT spokesman Adam Liversage says: “We’re already looking at how to re-skill our engineering workforce to install this network. If we were to get the [overall] Olympics contract, we would certainly require a new team of specialist workers.”

Andrew Harley, HR director at O2, is already re-skilling his HR team to cope with extra pressure predicted at the Olympics. It needs workers to constantly monitor how the network is being used and to provide communications for the police and other emergency services.

“We’re trying to develop a single point of contact in HR for specific issues, so we have specific managers who can, for example, advise on employee relations if workers have ultra-long shifts,” he says.

Atos Origin is the long-standing IT partner for the games. Its executive vice-president, Patrick Adiba, says that mobility, diversity and training are the biggest challenges for its HR team.

“We have a mix of nationalities. Staff stay in one place for two to four years and then move on. We have to make sure that different cultures work well together and employees remain happy when they relocate. We need to train quickly, so we assign staff to real jobs as part of their training programme – this is the best way to learn and transfer knowledge,” he says.

Adiba says Atos Origin will be looking to recruit thousands of local IT professionals in 2009, but that there should be no skills shortages in London.

Specific HR challenges in the run-up to the Olympics will emerge as more contracts are confirmed. It is set to affect multiple sectors, and HR has to plan now to recruit, train and hopefully retain the world-class workforce that is needed to make the games a success.

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