Monday, 1 July 2013

Career reflections and staff retention

’ Do you remember when you started your first post-university professional job? When you were eager to sign up to your professional organisation and get going on the post-nominals? I had just moved to London and during the mid-1990s had an open mind as to whether a job was going to be for life or for 6 months but I really hoped my first job would be special, long lasting and I worked really hard to get it right.

Which I did; that firm never had a keener or more passionate library assistant and I loved it there. Building on my theoretical library school knowledge, I learnt so much about how to – and how not to – run a library, design a new one, set up a library catalogue, see how lawyers reacted to the thought of mere support staff having email and communicating directly with clients. I would have stayed there if it hadn’t been for a number of issues, which I shall come on to in a moment. Despite having written a career overview for the excellent UKlibchat group, this posting isn’t just a mere excursion into nostalgia but recently I overheard someone say ‘if someone is good [at their job], we don’t expect them to stay’. Both have made me consider staff retention and there were a few things I wanted to think through.

I am not in HR but we covered 'management' at university, I've had council approved staff management courses and looked after a couple of assistants in a previous job. My initial reaction to that comment was, how terrible! If someone – I’m thinking graduate or early/change in career person – starts a job and they are bright, enthusiastic, good at what they do and a real asset, my reaction would be ‘keep them for as long as possible’. However after much discussion, research and reflection, many things keep people like that circulating around the job market.

Chatting with one of these exceptional ‘fresh’ assets to the legal information world at an event last week was illuminating. He (with a colleague) are writing a report called ‘From Academia to the Office: New Professionals in the workplace’ and presented some of their findings at the 2013 BIALL conference.  Having consulted their slides, some of the responses, especially regarding university preparation for commercial life, are extremely familiar and will probably never change. My favourite ones being ‘I learnt far more working in libraries as a student and as a Graduate Trainee’ and ‘the course taught me nothing of any value’. Clearly the people surveyed are practical and willing to learn, apply what they already know,and make your organisation a much better and competitive place. But once you have one of these keen people, what can you do to ensure their loyalty and willingness to stay?

Firstly are people actually staying in jobs for shorter periods of time? Clearly in some companies, staff turnover is higher than others but rather than simply relying on anecdote, I turned to a very useful free report on Resourcing and Talent Planning 2012. It stated that ‘only one-third of organisations experienced no difficulties in retaining staff during the previous year (2011 survey: 42%; 2010 survey: 45%; 2009 survey: 31%)’. I’m most interested in London, services/technical staff and private companies and it is this combination which is experiencing general difficulties in retaining staff. So people are indeed moving on more quickly and clearly there is a job market for good quality people.

What is happening then? The figures they give are quite astonishing. This report suggests that pre-2007 people were rewarded by pay rises and as I don’t immediately have access to their pre-2009 figures I cannot confirm that more pay = better retention. However I am willing to stick my neck out and say that if you don’t pay good people they will move on. They suggest the most common ways of retaining people are: 
increase learning and development opportunities (47%), improve line managers’ people skills (46%) and improve the induction process (43%). … Improving benefits also remains less common compared with 2007
I would agree wholeheartedly that access to training and having a good boss are very important, however pay and benefits should never be neglected. I wonder if highly qualified keen people are emerging with unrealistic views of what a recession-hit job base can actually afford to pay them? Or is this just an excuse for bad employers to reap the benefit of good people for a few months, pay them market/below market rate and then let them move on?

You see, this view baffles me. Salaries remain one of the biggest costs for service based companies and people are an investment. If companies accept 1) that a good person costs more to employ than an couple of mediocre people, 2) that good people with all their expertise will leave if they think they are not valued and rewarded, then that company will reap not only the benefits of an excellent workforce and improved service to clients but a resultant increase in profits.

I was nervous of applying my reasons for moving from my first job because it was a long time ago, in a different economy and generalising from individual circumstances is unscientific. However the reasons I moved on as a 'new professional' in 1997, with 18 months valuable work experience are exactly the same as in 2013. My next role (where I stayed another 18 months) gave me an immediate 13% pay rise, a more challenging environment, an 'interesting' arrangement of bosses and provided the next step in my career. Only now with years of experience do I see the value of bright ideas, fresh thinking and the importance of retaining good people. The comment I overheard should perhaps be 'if someone is good [at their job], we don’t expect them to stay for more than 2 years and in that time we should encourage comprehensive knowledge exchange so we all benefit’. Thoughts on this gratefully received!

With thanks to Sam Wiggins @libwig

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