Jobs and the Future of Work

4 key steps to closing the skills gap

Patricia Milligan
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Corporations have long played a role in public-good initiatives. The Industrial Age saw a flourishing of philanthropic practices, with wealthy business owners developing programmes and donating to local causes in the communities that served their factories.

There were varied motivations for these benevolent acts. Some were expressions of charitable religious principles, while others reflected the belief that these initiatives were the ‘right thing to do’. Many of these drivers may well resonate today, as the principles of the relationship between business and society have remained fundamentally the same.

The practices outlined in the report, Disrupting Unemployment, include powerful examples of how employers’ public-good initiatives can serve the interests of both employers and communities by reducing employment risks and creating opportunities. However, today’s initiatives differ in two key ways:

  • First, the scale of initiatives today can be vast, impacting millions. Interventions such as Deutsche Bank’s Born to Be and the Rockefeller Foundation’s Digital Jobs Africa, both detailed in the report, are examples of the scale potential of specific programmes.
  • Second, the scope of interventions is often much broader. Organisations connect with populations from multiple, diverse backgrounds and geographies to support wide-ranging programmes – from the provision of micro-insurance to developing export skills for e-commerce.

Initiatives described in the report reveal an evolution of corporate social responsibility from corporate philanthropy (benevolent endowment programmes for those people who are disadvantaged or marginalised) to responsible strategic planning that serves business objectives and socio-economic development in a sustainable, moral framework. This dynamic, in the context of widespread concerns about a global talent crisis, socio-economic instability, ageing populations, and environmental change, is driving the increased sharing of roles and responsibilities between the public and private sector – and the willingness of both parties to engage in such sharing.

The education sector is one of the longest-standing examples of collaboration that serves business and societal interests. Businesses today frequently lament the perceived gap between the skills they require and those created through existing educational systems, leading businesses to partner with local educational systems to produce graduates with skills that make them immediately employable.

Collaborations between businesses and local technical schools and, to some extent, the US community college system are familiar examples. But not all is local. Many employers have interests in helping increase the supply of new graduates skilled in information technology and, more broadly, in the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Collaboration between businesses and educational systems can be a win-win for both stakeholders. And when we create a clear path for entry into the workforce, we create a critical solution to youth unemployment.

There is another set of potential benefits to businesses resulting from these forms of collaboration: reputational benefits. We are in an era when who you are matters a great deal in addition to what products or services you provide. The Reputation Institute reports that companies with high reputations are worth up to 150% more than those companies with low reputations..

In our world today, when even the slightest infraction by a corporation can lead to a tide of public discontent through social media, trust and respect are new forms of corporate currency, critical to sustained business success. Moral principles – often expressed under the rubric of “sustainability objectives” – that are embedded in collaborative efforts to disrupt unemployment can help employers avoid catastrophic reputation losses when missteps occur.

Our involvement with the Disrupting Unemployment report has helped us identify four fundamental rules that every successul public-good initiative should have:

  • The programme must be a good fit with your business objectives. Many public-good initiatives undertaken by businesses are worthy causes that meet considerable needs. This is commendable, but without strategic alignment, the initiative likely lacks the long-term commitment needed to pave the way for an effective, sustainable programme.
  • It is a long-term commitment. Many of the most powerful initiatives – for example, nurturing entrepreneurship and building new skills – take time. Evidence of progress and returns on investment often takes several years; the business cannot expect an immediate payback.
  • Programmes have to be sustainable. A sustainable project requires an exit strategy or a hand-over from the company once the initiative has reached maturity.
  • The initiatives have to be measurable. If a programme cannot document its impact on both the beneficiaries and the company itself, the programme won’t be sustainable and will be little more than a well-intentioned tick of the box.

We believe that the business community is only just starting to understand the power of these initiatives and the true extent of the value of the returns these investments bring. We encourage you to share your own examples and learnings from your own programmes so that the conversation can continue.

Author: Patricia A. Milligan is Regional President, North America Region, Mercer

Image: A worker of Signet Solar checks a photovoltaic module in a plant in Mochau near Dresden December 17, 2008. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

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Related topics:
Jobs and the Future of WorkEconomic GrowthEducation and Skills
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