We are being told that the long-wished for ‘recovery’ is upon us. Is anything really happening? Is there anything to cheer about yet?
What is the view from this corner of the recruitment world? Clearly, I'm not an economist. Having said that, not many economists came up with much of interest before or during the depression that hit our country, so I can't do much worse. Here is my, completely unqualified, analysis.
Even I, cynic that I am, have to admit that there is a buzz about town. Before things really get moving in a positive direction in any organisation or in any society, there tends to be a collective sense of something good in the air. This, I feel, is happening right now. This is not to diminish the real hardship that people are still feeling. What happened over the past near decade, is written all over the CV's that comes across my desk. The people who were lucky enough to stay in work, may have been working for many years somewhere. Then, in 2009 they suddenly were no longer working in that company and they then worked contract after contract. Mostly because the businesses for which they were working, were also having a hard time. Those genuinely are the lucky ones. There are the others. The bleakness and stress is written all over everyone's faces, not just the faces of employees either. Small and medium sized employers who managed to weather the storm, often lost valued people with whom they'd been working for years. This did not make them happy. They lost life savings and their homes, trying to save their businesses. The unlucky ones, many of whom are no longer with us, had a much worse fate. Yet, I cannot dispute the fact that people are now getting back to work and that people are getting interviews, that things are moving in the right direction. Businesses seem happier to offer permanent roles. This is a sign that they feel more secure. There is a sense of positivity and it is real and I feel, it is warranted.
According to Social Justice Ireland, the Jobs Gap at the end of Quarter 1 2016 stood at over 166,000. That's the gap that needs to be bridged to bring us back to peak employment levels. In the year up to Jan 2016, 47,000 were created. Even if that continues at the rate of 3,900 new jobs per month, it will be 2019 before the Jobs Gap is bridged. So, we need long term and substantial public investment to speed up and maintain the levels of job creation. We need infrastructure there to bolster that job creation. Of course, a functioning society cannot be just based on jobs created but getting back to work is a start. For many of us, myself included, having that base of a decent job, is the platform for everything else in our lives. It gives us a sense of security that allows us then to be more flexible in how we spend any spare money. Being able use disposable income in our economy, is essential to further job creation. Just having a job, any job, is a good beginning but where the really positive change takes place, is in how we view our jobs. And here is another source of my optimism. Again, this is all anecdotal, but I see people's attitudes to work have changed and jobs have changed. There has been a paradigm shift. I have employers saying to me that they want people who are working for them to be happy. Yes! Really! Of course, there are still the horror stories out there and I thought the first time I heard it, that it was just an aberration but no, there are many, many people out there who now talk about developing good relationships with people who work for them. Those business owners and managers have said to me that they want people to work 'with them' rather than 'for them'. They are open to part-time work, flexible work, working from home. They want to give their employees autonomy and to be able to trust the people they work with. They are finding that giving that trust to people causes those people to value that trust and to behave accordingly.
On the other side, the candidates I see coming through who are asking for those flexible working hours. They are interested in whether the workplace is a nice place to work, the culture of the organisation, do they treat workers properly, benefits packages etc. Of course, they want to earn decent pay for their work but it is the other things that will make them move to a new workplace or not.
Women of a certain age (not dissimilar to myself) are coming back into the workforce and getting good jobs. 15 years ago no one put any value on working for years in the home. I'm not saying that we don't have a long way to go as regards gender equality but I think we have to thank our older sisters for kicking down some doors for the rest of us, so that there's now some understanding of a varied career background, the value of transferable skills and that one's brain is not actually sucked out through one’s ear, should you take a break from working the 9-5 for a few years for whatever reason.
I met three very senior finance people in the last week, all men; two of whom had moved with their families to Ireland 'to have a better life'. I must add here that they were not running away from any horrors like war, famine or even a bad economic situation. They had all left high earning positions in their respective countries and will have access to the same kinds of jobs here. All three of them, spoke about wanting to do less onerous hours, to have time to spend with their children, how they wanted a life first and a job to support that life, rather than the other way around. This is heartening and this is not how it used to be. Men especially (and women who were trying to break through the glass ceiling), felt that they had to be at work and to be seen to be at work morning noon and night. However, empirical evidence shows, that if productivity is your main goal for your employees, having people stay away from their friends, families and homes 'working' for you, for all their waking hours, doesn't really improve their productivity long term. In Sweden they are testing out the implementation of a standard 6-hour working day at the moment, because studies have suggested that this optimises productivity and increases general happiness and this in turn, (guess what?) increases productivity. It is, if you will, a non-vicious circle.
Now, this is not to say that there are already hundreds of thousands of high quality jobs out there or that every potential employer is handing out wheat grass shots as you waltz in at 12pm, to lie across the Swiss ball while munching on carrot sticks. Nor is that every employee’s idea of a happy workplace. This idea of changing attitudes on both sides (employer and worker), towards a more humanistic and happiness-centred relationship, does not always involve having a pool table and beer fridge at work. Although, that is many people’s idea of a perfect working situation, in fact, the pool table and the beer fridge might very well be seen by some employees as a way of keeping you in the workplace rather than with the people who really keep you happy. Both employers and workers have a more pragmatic view of what might make for a happy workplace.
I was out with a client recently and the HR Manager encapsulated the new attitude I'm talking about, in a few short sentences. This was not a glamorous business with a glamorous office. It was a North Dublin office in an industrial estate involved in an un-fancy part of the construction industry. The HR Manager said, "People are nice here. Everyone's sound and people stay because it's a good crowd to work with. Nearly everyone is here between 10 and 25 years. I have kids and I never feel unhappy about commuting up the road to come in here because I like the work and I like the people I work with. I work part-time and that suits us all". It is this kind of honesty and straight talking that keeps people happy. It is this kind of job that I can ‘sell’, for want of a better word. Not every business is going to be able to offer people flexible working hours, part-time or remote working. Retail workers, for example, can't really work from home or turn up for work when their creative juices start flowing. Retail workers though, could be involved in the decision making process, for instance. They could be given more control over timetabling, or shown visible appreciation for their work etc. There are many ways to skin a happy cat. One size does not fit all employers, all businesses, or indeed, all workers. It is not all about money either. Everyone would like to have more money in their pocket but businesses would go out of business and jobs would no longer exist, were constantly increasing wages the only marker for happiness in the workplace. Having some control and feeling empowered is what seems to be most pertinent to the success or otherwise of any business, small or large, in the pursuit of happiness. Some people really appreciate very direct micro-management, many do not. Finding what is right for you as a worker, for you as an employer and implementing those choices in small ways, will get us all on the road for a better lifestyle, society and dare I say, more flourishing economy. The key is to accept that cultural attitudes to work and employment have shifted and are continuing to shift and change for the better, (in this humble, non-economist's opinion). We are on a new work road. This is the road less travelled by and that will make all the difference.