Rethink, redesign, rejuvenate

by 22 Apr 2010

As national employment reaches capacity, a skills shortage is set to reignite the war for talent. Clever employers will rethink traditional job design – and make the most of who they have. Tom Washington reports

Just when you think you’ve got rid of one problem, another one tends to come along to disrupt the peace.

First there was the good news. Last month’s Australian Industry Group/Deloitte CEO survey, Industry in Recovery Mode in 2010 underlined Australia’s economic recuperation. It suggested that growth in the manufacturing, construction and services sectors, which represents 90 per cent of the economy, is set to be solid in the coming 12 months.

Indeed, Australia’s unemployment has reached 5.3 per cent and is falling, compared to 7.8 per cent in the UK and nearly 10 per cent in the US.

But, as always, there’s a caveat. If Australia’s recovery continues at this pace, in its so-called V-shaped form, the demand for skilled workers will grow faster than its supply. Full employment is seen to be at 4.5 to 5 per cent, meaning the talent pool is almost at stretching point. Last year, even in the midst of the GFC, the Australian Industry Group estimated there was an ongoing shortage of around 250,000 full-time employees, particularly technicians and tradespeople.

So as the well-oiled machine of industry clicks into life, an altogether new test for organisations arises in the form of a talent war.

Fighting the talent stretch

Nicky Wakefield, partner at Deloitte’s NSW Human capital consulting practice, doesn’t believe 5.3 per cent unemployment is an accurate unemployment figure to start with. “I think there is a much larger pool of people out there that has not been tapped who are educated, skilled and capable,” she says.

“They might be retired, they might be mothers at home looking after their children; people who have opted out of the workplace because it’s been too complicated or stressful. It’s become unattractive due to a lack of flexibility and a lack of commitment from employers.”

Tapping into this pool of talent could be vital for employers searching for specific skills. One of the best ways to do that is to make the working environment so appealing that those people not actively looking for work begin to realise there is a lot to gain working.

In certain industries, a return to the milieu of a tight talent market will also drive workplace innovation to attract the best candidates. Jon Williams, partner in PricewaterhouseCoopers’ management consulting practice, says: “We’re at the beginning of what could be a reasonably lengthy business upswing, so if employers are not doing something that’s different to their competitors then they’re going to lose out.

“We know that with engineering, the mining firms are going to come after staff with money and most other sectors can’t keep up with them financially. Employers need to work out what it is they can fight with. If you go down the money path, there will always be someone who can offer more.”

Job redesign

Being an attractive, flexible employer represents far more than simply offering teleworking or flexitime. Recessionary times are a great time to implement change, and savvy employers are examining their current work practices and job design to ensure they are effective and efficient.

Job redesign itself should primarily focus on what Wakefield calls ‘critical roles’, or positions that add a disproportionate value to the bottom line of the business. It is crucial to ensure that succession planning and recruitment into those key areas is sufficient, but also to be certain that those key staff members are satisfied and motivated in their roles.

For example, in a high-performing sales team that generates a critical portion of revenue for a business, there might be a lot of administration to be done. What employers must aim to do is remove this administration from the duties of the key salespeople, distracting them from their main task: making money. This could ultimately lead to job dissatisfaction and with relative ease these menial admin tasks can be outsourced, automated or given to an area of the workforce separate to critical workers.

“Organisations need to be better at pulling apart roles. Get processes more efficient, use technology more aggressively to take menial tasks out of key people’s responsibilities,” explains Wakefield.

When re-shaping post-GFC, many employers are undertaking the task of de- layering their workforce, removing middle management and expanding the span of control. Dr. Carol Gill, program director, organisational leadership at Melbourne Business School says that a larger span of management eliminates hierarchy and ‘flattens’ the organisation, pushing power down so employees can make their own decisions.

“If you ask a lot of employees if they could still function without their supervisor, a lot would say ‘yes of course’,” she says. “But you must couple de-layering with a genuine empowerment of the workforce.”

Goodbye 9 to 5

Furthermore, the traditional workforce consisting of desk-based nine-to-fivers has started to give way to a modern era, influenced in no small part by communications technology and teleworking. Employers are using communications technology as a more prominent tool in their quest to work more efficiently and be attractive to a broader spectrum of employees.

Not restricted to simply allowing people to work from home, technology allows work to be distributed and managed with greater ease. For example, if a business has a huge workload in Perth but has staff twiddling their thumbs in Melbourne, work can be re-distributed and therefore easing any geographical skills shortage.

Flexible working practices have also become a common method of being inclusive to groups such as working mothers. For job roles that don’t require an employee for eights hours a day, organisations are more than ever looking to groups such as students and working parents to do the job part-time, be it in the office or from home.

Gill says that unfortunately, while men tend to take up flexible working opportunities, women often shy away. “This could well be about the fact that women will only take up policies offering flexibility that are endorsed by peers and particularly managers. Sadly, women feel they may be perceived as teleworking to look after their children and that it will impact career opportunities,” she says.

There is also much more fluidity in today’s workforce and employers are increasingly looking to boost their talent pool by outsourcing work overseas, or indeed bringing in international talent.

With any of these arrangements, there are two words that must be at the forefront of HR professionals’ minds: talent management. Attracting new and varied talent who are not necessarily a traditional fit within your organisation is one thing, but managing diversity is a tricky task.

Williams says there is a burning desire for authenticity amongst workers and any of these new practices must be implemented from the top- down. “Job redesign has to be authentic, not just saying they’ll change something and then it not happening. The same goes for flexible working. When your managers don’t believe in it, it only takes one person to tut when someone walks out a little early to make it worthless,” he says.


1. Job redesign - Dissect job duties to ensure they are efficient and that key staff are satisfied

2. Teleworking - Use modern communications technology to make the most of your entire workforce

3. Flexible working - A must to ensure your organisation is tapping into the full talent pool

4. Look overseas - Outsourcing work abroad is a great way to streamline, and keep an eye out for overseas talent to bring in, too

5. Offer a unique employee proposition - Don't just use money or you'll risk losing out


Logistics services company Federal Express was losing an unreasonable amount of talent from its pool of truck drivers.

These employees were highlighted as a critical segment of the workforce; they had ultimate contact with the customer, they made the decision on what route to take and were in control of getting the package there in time.

Federal Express discovered one of the key reasons they were losing them was the way the job was designed. They had the drivers packing the vans and doing all the administration too. The job was divided so that the drivers only had responsibility for the most important things - driving and customer service, and the rest was given to other employees elsewhere in the organisation.

Deloitte's Wakefield, says: "Not only did the bleeding of talent soon stop, the change also allowed them to broaden their talent pool. It allowed them to recruit students, and less skilled groups of people who were just needed to pack trucks."

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