‘Use the apprenticeship levy to improve management’ – Cary Cooper

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Improving the UK’s poor management performance is the definitive way to fix the economy, says organisational psychologist Professor Sir Cary Cooper, and using the apprenticeship levy to improve the quality of technically proficient managers is key

Low productivity is symptomatic of poor management, inflexible leadership and overwork and National Apprenticeship Week has been a prime opportunity to focus minds on improving our management skills to get productivity back on track and close the gap with other leading nations.

According to Office of National Statistics figures for 2016 (the most recently released set, April 2018) the UK’s gross domestic product per hour worked was 26.2% lower than Germany’s, 22.8% lower than France’s, 22.6% lower than the US’s and 10.5% lower than Italy’s. It was marginally higher than Canada’s and 8.7% higher than Japan’s. Output for every hour worked in the UK was proportionally lower than the European countries in the G7 and the US.

The single biggest inhibitor of the British economy is poor management, which is the definitive underlying cause of our low national productivity.

Mounting pressure to deliver growth means that managers with excellent technical abilities but poor soft-skills pile ever more pressure onto workers – this stress increases worker absence and staff turnover, perpetuating the over-promotion of untrained managers and therefore further exacerbating our productivity problem.

In short, we’re trapped in a vicious cycle that needs to be broken.

Statistics from the Health and Safety Executive published last year confirm that 57% of all worker absence is stress related. Germany meanwhile, works an average 35-hour working week compared with 45 in the UK and is one of the most productive countries in the world.

Partly through my work alongside MPs and business leaders as part of a recent all-parliamentary commission on management it’s become clear to me that the apprenticeship levy offers a prime opportunity to turn technically accomplished managers into inspiring leaders with excellent soft skills and minds that are open to adopting new ways of working more conducive to performance.

Line managers can either enhance or deplete our performance depending on whether they have the social skills to motivate us. This means having the organisational oversight to prioritise people management and critically, a desire to get to know us as people.

Managers with excellent technical abilities but poor soft-skills pile ever more pressure onto workers – this stress increases worker absence and staff turnover, perpetuating the over-promotion of untrained managers”

To break our productivity deadlock, we need managers who are able to look to the future. We need managers who can inspire staff by crediting them for their achievements, nurturing them and allowing them to work flexibly. We need managers who see ongoing professional development as an opportunity to supplement their technical skills with the interpersonal skills to make performance and productivity a reality.

The future is more flexible and apprenticeship training should be a critical part of creating a new breed of managers who can unlock new ways of working, so I would urge businesses to use it to train staff at all levels. Doing so is hugely beneficial on a company level and nationally it will help us get our productivity back on track.

Despite overwhelming evidence that tackling poor management will be transformational for the economy and future job creation there are several obstacles in perception that need to be overcome.

Apprenticeship training should be a critical part of creating a new breed of managers who can unlock new ways of working”

Gathering momentum right now is a damaging misconception that every single apprentice should be a school leaver. While of course efforts need to be made to ensure young people remain the primary beneficiaries – our management skills gap is actually a much bigger economic problem and tackling it will be of incredible benefit to the entire workforce, particularly school leaver apprentices.

Not only will career entrants gain a more rounded experience through intelligently crafted training schedules and clear, motivational management – the economic productivity and growth benefits we unlock will ultimately help to create many more apprenticeship opportunities for young people in the coming years.

We aren’t staring down the barrel of a gun and facing an either or choice. Organisations can recruit school-leaver apprentices and upskill existing managers at the same time – this enables businesses to address their needs flexibly in line with their challenges which is exactly what our economy needs right now.

Professor Sir Cary Cooper

About Professor Sir Cary Cooper

Sir Cary Cooper is professor of organisational psychology and health at Alliance Manchester Business School, University of Manchester.
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