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Competitiveness – a constant process of adapting to change

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Marc Burrage, managing director of Hays Poland, talks to the BPCC’s Michael Dembinski about how tech is changing the world of recruitment, in terms of what skills are in demand and – how those skills are being found.

Marc Burrage  – you have been in Poland for six months having spent the past four years working for Hays in Japan and before that across Hong Kong, China, Malaysia, Singapore and India markets. Where are the biggest contrasts?

“Poland is still a relatively immature market for recruitment services, in particular when it comes to outsourcing of recruitment to organisations like ours. But like many mature markets, Poland faces the same problem – there’s a shortage of candidates. Demand exceeds supply for skilled workers. This is particularly noticeable in the market for IT contractors. Our IT contracting business is growing at an annual rate of 33%. We are also seeing in Poland an evolution of the economy and labour market. This is driven by different aspects – some businesses don’t want to be putting more people on their payroll, others want project-related teams that can be switched on or off at ease. In the Asian market, there was a cultural cringe about contract or temp work – it’s what you did if you couldn’t get a permanent job. But it’s not an issue here. There’s a reasonable balance overall with 17m out of 38m Poles at work, with a 55/45% split between men and women.

“Poland’s working age population is shrinking, though not at the rate that Japan’s is. At the same time the Polish economy is growing as the retirement age has been cut. In such situations, a country has to buy, build or adapt its workforce. Skilled migrants are being fast-tracked – but are the numbers enough? And is enough being done to encourage women back into the workplace, with adequate provision of child care and flexible working? Many women will be out of the workforce for a year or more, so support for working mothers, mapping their return to work is essential. Is there enough upskilling going on?

Poland’s schools are in the global top ten in the latest PISA report – but then Poland doesn’t have a single university in the Times Higher Education Supplement’s global top 600. What’s Poland doing right, and what’s wrong?

“Building a nation’s workforce starts at school. STEM (science-technology-engineering-maths) subjects are important, but technology is changing so fast that any curriculum will be out of date by the time pupils will enter the labour market. Even so, Japan is overhauling its school system. Whichever lens you look at education through, be it a commercial, governmental or individual’s lens, any educational system should prepare pupils above all to adapt to keep up with change and learn new skills. Technology in the workplace will change our work much faster in the future than it has in the past. Communication skills, soft skills, will become more important as tech learns to handle the more repetitive tasks in the workplace. The ability to continually up-skill oneself and adapt will become more important than a piece of paper.”

How do you see the labour market being changed by tech?

“Look at the change that’s already happened. Take a really basic business function like marketing. Over recent years, digital marketing has taken over, traditional marketing has been left behind. Once, ‘digital marketing manager’ was a specialist job title; today, if you can’t do marketing digitally, you can’t work in that field. We’ll see the same in the future. Those who are most adaptable, more open to change will have huge advantages.

After your time in Japan, how do you see the Polish labour market?

“The Polish labour force is highly thought of by foreign investors here. Poles are seen to be self-disciplined, with a strong work ethic, and getting better in terms of openness in communications. They are pointing in the right direction – learning all the time, keeping up with the knowledge economy. In a competitive global economy, Poland knows it has to keep up and reinvent itself as an ever high-value added economy. This is happening.

“Look at the phenomenal boom in shared services. This is being joined by IT and outsourcing, as well as by a growing trend towards temporary recruitment. Right now, the IT, outsourcing and temp side of our business is growing the fastest; IT has gone crazy. Demand from financial services, banks, FMCG is high. However, demand has unsurprisingly slowed in manufacturing and automotive. The shift towards higher value-added work speaks for itself.

“We’re starting to see faster outsourcing happening among Polish corporates, comparable to the recruitment that we’re doing here for international corporates. SME clients are accounting for a small part of our Polish business, and that’s a slower-burn for outsourcing of recruitment. Given that around 30% of Poland’s workforce is employed by around 20,000 SMEs, there’s potential business growth here, but most of these firms are still in ‘DIY mode’ when it comes to recruitment in that they will insist on doing their own and are not yet keen to outsource. But this is a time of transition.”

How do you assess the Polish business environment in general?

It’s quite legislative here – things are often more complicated than they need to be. But this isn’t putting the handbrake on business growth completely. The economy is slowing, but there’s still growth, Poland is still the regional leader, there’s market share to be taken from competitors.

But it is the efficiency of running a business which impacts firms’ ability to take on people. If there are too many layers of bureaucracy, if it’s overly complex and it doesn’t add value to business, then it slows you down. Business needs to sit down together with government and look at the disconnects; the market will get more challenging so better to only focus on what makes a real positive difference.

How is tech changing recruitment?

“You can view it as a threat or a tool. Back in the mid-1990s, the arrival of job boards were predicted to be the death of the recruitment industry. That didn’t happen. Ten years later, LinkedIn was going to be death of the recruitment industry. Not so. How does the industry harness technological change? You use it to boost your productivity. Replace tasks that are repetitive, that can be programmed to enable you to work faster, smarter and increase efficiency. It’s the same across the entire labour market. I think tech will replace more tasks than jobs. The economy won’t require fewer people, only different skills. What those hard skills are – we don’t yet fully know. But we do know that you will have to learn to be adaptable to survive on the market. Evolution is happening at an ever-faster pace. Communication and soft skills more and more important – what can you add? You won’t be able to hide behind tech skills like in some jobs we had in the past.

“The fourth industrial revolution is upon us. Humans survived the first three and have proven to be a success as a species – adaptable, flexible and agile. The challenge is the same.”

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