CIPD must address skills gap as workforce unrest grows

‘Let’s sit down and have a nice cup of tea’, or words to that effect, seems to be the reaction from CIPD chief Jackie Orme to the declaration of war on HR professionals last month by the leader of the UK’s largest union.

I find it wholly puzzling that Orme’s reaction makes no reference at all to the growing militancy of trade unions and the skills shortage among HR professionals to be able to deal with it. Indeed, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has done nothing over the years to help develop thinking outside of the academic model thrust upon the profession, as it has provided them a platform to argue that HR is now more strategic.

Humanistic approach

Employee or industrial relations cannot simply be put into a box, let alone form part of an academic model. Dealing with employees and unions requires a humanistic approach and understanding. The most successful employee relations I have seen are where personal relationships are strong building that takes time, trust and dedication. But, in the current climate, even those employers with the best relationships will find them tested.

Surely the CIPD has a responsibility to offer support and guidance to its members through these tough times? Real value can only come from a professional body that knows what it is like to be sat across the table from a unionist who wants to negotiate hard and perhaps fight dirty.

It is also not correct to assume, as Orme does, that the “vast majority of people will work with their employers to get through the tough times and come out the other side in good shape”. Bad feeling over pay and conditions and sub-inflation pay rises is not only felt and acted upon by a small number of militant union leaders. It is felt by all who are facing rising bills and falling disposable incomes.

My argument is that the vast majority expect their employers to match the rate of inflation at pay review time, and are not necessarily understanding of profitable businesses not delivering on this. After all, most unions will say they only represent the views of their members.

The UK lost more than one million days to strike action in 2007, the first time it has topped that figure for a number of years, and despite a steady fall in the number of union members overall. It may well reach those heights again in the coming years. Where do HR practitioners that need help and advice go to get it?

There are serious issues facing the HR profession in the UK, not least of which is the acute skills shortage in some of the HR disciplines. Most HR directors will agree that hiring a specialist in reward, employee relations or management development has become very difficult. The talent pool is tiny and those who are available are snapped up quickly. This leaves a big hole in the breadth and depth of experience available to employers across all sectors.

Take responsibility

It is easy to argue that Ulrich’s business partner model has played a leading role in creating this shortage, after all, it has become quite difficult in medium and large-sized organisations to get experience in all HR has to offer. But the CIPD must also take some responsibility.

I would like to see much more of an emphasis in its qualifications on practical experience. At the moment, there is such a focus on theory, perhaps taught by those without a practical HR background, that when it comes to actually putting that into practice, HR professionals struggle. There is a massive gap between the academic skills with which we equip our colleagues and the experience they need to face the challenges of the real world, particularly in the fields of employee relations or reward. To be good in these areas, you need to have experienced it, know how an organisation works, what will and won’t suit it. No textbook will be able to teach that.

If the CIPD is to remain relevant and justify the costs of membership, study fees and the events it runs, it must start to tackle the real issues the profession faces before its members start to drift away.

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