Skills in Birmingham – our people, what they’re like and what we need

Two tins of peas
Great Value(s) P(l)eas(e) - photo by Tony Crider (click to view on flickr)

Later this month the Birmingham and Solihull LEP will start making some decisions about skills and work – asking themselves what skills do employers need and how to make them available.

I know this because of a set of “skills” that are hard to measure or teach.

One is being networked.

Peter Latchford (who’s doing some initial work for the LEP on skills) approached me to see what I thought businesses like Podnosh will need. On 30th January he’ll report back and tell the LEP what small business is asking for. So this is what I’d like them to hear:

Podnosh recruits for?


We are driven by making things better: improving public services, helping active citizens have a greater impact, allowing individual civil servants more freedom to improve lives, supporting good third sector organisations to help more people. We don’t work with anyone – if potential clients don’t share a good chunk of our passions or values we’d rather they found someone else to help them.

So for this we employ or work with people who:

  • believe in what we do
  • care about it
  • are accountable
  • transparent
  • honest
  • have integrity
  • are networked

In turn they often know what they want and believe in and are leaders in their own worlds.

They are usually enterprising: Steph Jennings runs her own hyperlocal blog, Josh Hart makes LIVEBrum happen, Gavin Wray has nurtured the Central Birmingham Social Media Surgery for years. They make things happen, adapt to change, accept and learn from failure.

On top of that they are flexible and committed. All seem to have an unstoppable ability to make things work, see things through and to learn everything and anything they need to make that happen.

So we also want to find people who start things themselves (not the same as self starters), can’t help but learn on their own, aware of their strengths and happy to be open about what they want to strengthen.

It may sound like a halcyon world of small enterprise. But these are the people who work at, or with, Podnosh and they all have remarkable qualities (and if it sounds like I’m expecting them to be superhuman I’m not, I could never keep up).

One thing I haven’t mentioned? A certificate in anything.

Certainly there are technical skills and we are looking for more folk who are good at Ruby on Rails, but in our world many technical skills get outdated very quickly. So at it’s simplest we recruit the person, get that right and the knowledge later.

What do you recruit for – what does the LEP need to understand are the skills or qualities we need to help Birmingham’s small businesses thrive?


Karl Binder at Adhere added these thoughts to the discussion in his post “Total Business”:

So I look for:

  • Aptitude, a readiness and quickness in learning
  • Love what they do, have a passion for their job
  • Flexibility
  • Desire to continually try something new
  • Recognition that their job role can and will change
  • Existing skill set

If I had to sum up my employment strategy in a catchy little sound bite I would say I always looked to ’employ people, rather than skills’. This effectively means if the person’s attitude is right, they have a willingness to learn and an ability to do so, don’t get disheartened and give up quickly and realise that their role is one that is constantly evolving, I would employ them over someone who was the finished product in one particular area of expertise.

Thanks Karl.


  1. Noel Dunne says:

    The principle issue is that learning providers teach what can be assessed. Students only give significance to that which is marked. How many teachers and students take Personal Social and Health Education in secondary schools seriously? Until the qualities that Nick and Karl say inform their recruitment decisions, are taken seriously there will continue to be frustrations from employers, providers and talented people looking to get into the sector. That will mean also assessing those qualities. After all, two employers have said they make judgements based on them so why not create criteria to teach and assess them. The Personal Learning and Thinking were a good start but this is not the agenda of this current Governments obsession with knowledge based curriculum.

  2. As a training provider and accredited delivery agent for qualifications, people often think we value qualifications above all else. This isn’t true, in fact the opposite is the case. We employ over 60 people that we have recruited for their experience, mostly of life, family, barriers, prejudice and often overcoming the most difficult of circumstances. Their experience is nothing without genuine commitment, passion and enthusiasm for what they are doing and it’s these values that we would recruit for.
    Often qualifications mean exclusion for many rather than inclusion.I often see them as a hoop people have to jump through in order to do things that really matter. For me, while others were doing their degrees or their masters, I was learning about real life and real people and it taught me a huge amount.
    We work mostly with the NHS and professional qualifications are necessary in most cases (my dentist for example!) Unlike many other sectors the qualifications rarely change and this can mean a job for life, but it also can mean that you never get to employ people who see the world from different perspectives – always valuing skills and qualifications over experience and values makes for a very insular organisation.

  3. James Yarker says:

    Years ago as a visiting lecturer I tried to fail a student on a section of a course and it was a real struggle because the institution didn’t want anyone to fail their course – they will have emerged with a (Degree) certificate, pity the employer who took that at face value.

    Commonsense, generosity of spirit, willingness to learn, prepared to work like a dog – all useful qualities.

    When you find the right person their qualities can transcend any simple ‘personnel specification’ because they are The Right Person, and if they don’t have the right certificates that will rapidly become irrelevant.

  4. Katie Underhill says:

    While I completely agree with the premise of ‘recruit for attitude, train for skill’, and think your list of qualities is probably what differentiates Podnosh from competitors and is therefore ‘right’ for you, there is something to be said about the importance of ‘basic’ or ‘key’ skills.

    Many people leave school without basic (level 2 or GCSE grade C or above) literacy and numeracy. They go into the workplace and struggle with tasks that I would think most employers would take for granted as something any employee should be able to do. I’m not talking about technical skills or an ability to be a whizz on a computer, i’m referring to comand of language and ability to do basic sums.

    I think it’s important any review and action by the LEP should consider both sides of the coin- personal ‘attributes’ combined with the core skills that will keep the UK economy competitive.

  5. Dave Harte says:

    Good post Nick. As you know I peddle in ‘certificates’ big style! I teach at postgraduate level now and there’s actually quite a focus on the enterprise and networking skills you describe across all our degrees that are otherwise subject-specific.

    I like to think that we try to ensure students develop a set of values that they can then articulate to employers or to a network and talk a lot about how their actions (in projects, in blog posts or wherever) should be an expression of those values. But we should remember that being enterprising and networking are very difficult things to do. I find them difficult to do myself and I talk a lot about confidence and what that means and how students can address being under-confident. We talk also about failure and how sometimes that can be a worthwhile experience.

    In short, I try to let them know the strategies I and others use so that they can be good at communicating their ‘value’ when they present themselves to employers like yourself.

    I think there’s more to said about networking though. I think too many SMEs consider networking an activity for middle/senior staff. There’s often a reluctance to let employees have access to online networking tools and I think there are three reasons for that:
    1. Senior staff have a lack of trust in the basic communication skills of employees.
    2. They have a sense that networking only takes place in offline situations where junior staff would feel out of their depth (the golf course, a drinks party, a conference etc. etc.)
    3. They have a sense that the lower the grade you are the more likely you are to have a strong work/home divide and therefore the blurring of that line that networking situations often create is somehow beyond the desire of most employees.

    Hope these comments are of value to your discussion with the LEP.

  6. David Burden says:

    I agree with Katie that it’s got to be a balance between soft skills/attitude and hard skills – we can’t afford to teach people the basics of programming. It’s also a lot about experience – we make the point on recruitment ads of saying, in most cases, that degrees etc are not absolutely required, and that several years spent coding in your bedroom is just as, if not more, valuable. Show us what you can do, and are doing, not what lessons you’ve had. This was really brought home in a recent recruitment exercise for a junior programmer. Candidates were all from local Universities, not top of the class but supposedly competent. When we started digging, by questioning and by practical tests, we were quite horrified by the actual coding ability – with almost “week 1” mistakes being made, and an admission by the candidates that a lot of their university course, especially in the final year, had been about concepts like “software engineering” and advanced test strategies rather than the real basics of just writing code. The more we recruit (and also from some time I spent consulting at the LSC) the more I think that the 3yr degree is not the right model for most vocational training, and that we should be going back to the 1-2yr HNC/HND type model at a local poly, then some good exposure to industry before doing the more advanced topics (interestingly exactly the training model I had when I was in the Army). We have also thought about going down the apprenticeship route, and as we get bigger hopefully we will, but reading about it it seems that most ICT apprenticeships are about hardware not coding.

    If we can’t get those basics rights then things like networking don’t figure, and the others are just hygiene issues – anyone want an employee that isn’t accountable, transparent, honest and with integrity or who doesn’t believe in what you do or care about it?

  7. Mike Cummins says:

    20 years ago, in a previous incarnation, I ran the PC department of a major courier firm.

    My best ever programmer came with HND in computer studies and was pretty useless for the first 6 months or so as he learned both the business and real-life programming (TM). Call that his apprenticeship.

    My worst was a Computer Science PhD who constantly got bogged down in details – he would wait until he got answers about the particular part he was working on rather than continuing with other parts whilst waiting. When I left two years after he was still (to my mind) pretty useless.

    The difference between the two was most obvious in the first always looking for something similar that he had worked on before to modify or use as a basis whereas the second would treat every project as new. This cannot be taught and is more a reflection of their attitudes to life than the level of learning.

    I learnt to try and find that attitude in interviews – I want people who play, who are always looking for a better way to do something and who are constantly testing themselves. This is evident in ‘play’ more than anything.

    My own experience of poly was that, aside from teaching the basic concepts, it gave me no real skills. I learnt more from summer jobs writing a database from scratch than I ever did at the poly. This convinced me that I can teach anyone to program as long as they can follow logic and I am often better (as a business) doing that than relying on course work which is necessarily shallow.

  8. Kate Cooper says:

    The elephant in the room in all these kinds of conversations is that mass employment is probably a thing of the past.

    I had a leaflet through my letterbox this morning from a local Lib Dem politician, saying that 400K new jobs and 250K new work placements were going to be “created”. Like magic, I suppose. And anyway, even if magic works, what the heck will they be doing? Interesting stuff? Socially valuable stuff? Stuff that makes them feel good about themselves and the world . . . let alone for how long and at what crap level of pay . . .

    On Monday, the Centre for Cities published its annual Cities Outlook 2012. A sobering read. National stats for youngsters in employment or education are dire, in Brum they’re even worse. We have the second highest JSA count of the 64 largest cities in the UK (Hull tops us in that regard), we’re the 5th lowest in terms of qualiifed people and have the 5th highest unemployment rate — and of the major cities we’re at the bottom in terms of employment (this is the order: Bristol, Edinburgh, Leeds, London, Newcastle, Sheffield, Manchester, Glasgow, Nottingham, Liverpool, Birmingham) — and we’re one of the most unequal of cities with only Glasgow, London and Rochdale below us.

    Some 40% of people in this city of working age are workless (that’s everyone who isn’t working, so includes, for example, mums staying home with infants). And if that sounds shocking, nationally it ain’t that much better.

    And in some wards, figures for worklessness and unemployment are far higher. Add in students and pensioners and . . . most people don’t work.

    Is the answer training? When all of you guys are talking about flexibility and willingness to learn, it suggests that it’d be impossible to design training that is relevant.

    Do we put thousands upon thousands of people through courses, just to occupy them? Eh??

    An employment market just doesn’t exist, doesn’t look likely to exist either . . . in the near future anyway.

    Yet, yet, yet . . . there’s bags of talent out there, and there’s bags of stuff that needs doing. What we need do in Birmingham is find ways of enabling us all to contribute to making our world a better place, and for everyone to have the self-respect that economic independence gives.

    (Yonks ago, Simone de Beauvoir said that women’s liberation was economic independence. She wuz right.

    When even the employed need their wages topped up in order to put a roof over their heads and food in their belly, whilst politicians argue about how big bankers’ bonuses “should” be, there’s something seriously wrong with how resources are shared out.)

    And after that rant here’s my two-penny’worth: We need a zillion solutions, and it’ll all seem a muddle — and an acknowledgement that ‘skills’ and ‘training’, however brilliant, however relevant, aren’t going make much difference to the lives and well-being of (what I fear is a majority) young Brummies.

    • David Ault says:

      I agree with Kate, in that we need to find ways to enable talent to be both found and utilised. Speaking as someone at the beginning of my working life, having gone through university getting astrophysics degrees and then going to acting school, travelling across North America on my own (non-funded) to research science centres and put the data for all to see, I feel like I’ve got a wide range of skills available for anyone to tap.

      In my current incarnation I’m running two science festivals, travelling to primary schools to do storytelling and doing voiceovers and voice acting from home. I’ve tried 9-5, and I’m not that kind of guy. I’m someone that needs projects to work on, but actually getting myself seen and heard can be quite difficult. Granted I’ve been around a bit and somewhat unsettled recently, but now I’m back I need opportunities to be utilised.

      That’s where I think the future needs to be – creating an open marketplace which is well publicised, so that talent can be matched to projects. I know that for my career lifestyle there’ll be gluts and famines, but I’ll be better off when I know where to go to get noticed. I wonder if other people my age are doing the same.

      Everyone has talent in some way or another, but what we lack is the knowledge of how to get it used, short of sending letters to every company out there – something which is annoying to employers, so far as I am told. Should I get another certificate? I’ve got quite a few through Screen WM and so forth, but it hasn’t led to much.

      I know that quite a bit of this may come over as a self-pitying wail, but I do think that what’s missing in the city and the economy in general is a mechanism by which talent can be seen and used, something to get people motivated and discovering what’s out there for them. For too long the TV and media have told people they’re on the scrapheap, and I think that has permeated some young people too much. If we’re to stop them from being disenfranchised, we’ve got to stop training them knowing that they won’t get a job, giving them false hopes. We need to talk to them and see what they can do.

  9. We must be careful we don’t return to a Tayloristic view of skills in the information age. This was the big problem for Birmingham in the 1980’s, low technical skills and not enough personal skills/awareness when the labour market changed. A balance betwen technical skills and personal aptitudes is critical.
    There is a need to understand what the service economy is really about and its distinctiveness from manufacturing. Both are important for our city and we need to support technical skills in both as well as focusing on person centred approaches in both

  10. Patrick Willcocks says:

    We are in tough times, it will take quite a while for Birmingham and the UK to pull through but what is clear is that globally the world is growing, china and India are slowing but there is no sign of recession. When the turnaround comes we will need to have the right skills. Now is exactly the time to invest in skills and infrastructure. What better time when there is less work around than to really focus on skills. When a recent report has shown that the UK is benefitting in terms of addition to GVA of £2.2bn from Facebook/apps we need to position ourselves to get some of this.

  11. Jason Hall says:

    I’m working with Birmingham Ormiston Academy (BOA) now and so, having come from a background of dealing more directly with employers, skills and business development, public sector agencies etc, I’m now seeing first-hand the delicate balance between all these and the educational route of that magic piece of paper that somehow says you’re qualified.

    Obviously, things are slightly different here at BOA since it is a vocational academy with a very specific focus on creative sectors, but the same principles apply. It’s about getting that balance right between attitude and aptitude, technical skills and personal commitment. And, in the creative industries, you can’t really have one without the other.

    The difference now – and why all of things Nick mentions are so important – is that many of the things that schools, colleges, universities, training centres and the like used to be able to offer exclusively are now pretty much available from a person’s own desktop. Access to high-end software tools, information, even learning new skills and techniques from some of the best in the business is all just a click away. When I was growing up, I wanted to make films and the *only* possible access to the kind of equipment and knowledge I needed to do so – short of investing thousands of pounds I never had – was in these institutions. Now I carry some pretty advanced filmmaking tools around in my pocket. The question is, who out there has the gumption to make the most of the tools that are readily at their disposal? And if a candidate can demonstrate that in their own time, then it’s a pretty safe bet that they can carry that attitude and approach across to the workplace…. which is precisely what businesses need.

    So while there is a role for educators and skills trainers to increase and enhance technical skills – and to give access to the more high-end, big expensive kit that you really don’t find in Dixons – there is a huge trend towards the self-taught. Sometimes the technical skills of the self-taught can need refocusing or there may be bad habits and inefficiencies that can be ironed out and sharpened up. And this is partly why the certificates exist.

    More importantly, though, the self-taught person shows a lot of the attributes that Nick mentions here. It shows a strong personal commitment. It shows they care about learning, they are intrigued and enquiring, they are dedicated, have passion etc. And, ultimately, I suspect this is partly why employers like Nick and Karl look for these qualities and – more to the point – how they look for these qualities. Interestingly, BOA will look for these qualities too via aptitude workshops, which are also really not about technical ability, more about attitude and approach.

    So this brings us back to Noel’s point about assessing these qualities. The way things stand, that assessment is done independently by the employers – not based on a certificate, but based on what a person has *done* and how they can demonstrate their commitment or passion. That could be by having taught themselves how to code or by being a regular at BSMC or by having made a bunch of films on their own YouTube channel or promoted their own gigs. Equally, it could be by having enrolled in a particular university or college or school and committing to and completing a one, two, three year course in X. As such, those paper qualifications are not so much about proving technical expertise as they are about proving commitment.

    Personally, I don’t believe there should be any kind of regulation or move towards paper qualification for these kind of soft skills. It’s right that it should be down to an employer’s judgement to assess how strong they are based on a candidate’s personality, actions and achievements. But what the educators, skills agencies, trainers etc can do is engage more closely with industry to revitalise PSHE, make it more relevant, more vibrant and less of an unwanted chore for students. Secondly, we can provide as many opportunities as possible to expand a person’s knowledge, their contacts and show what they can do in their own time and under their own steam… and for this to be rewarded.

  12. Gavin Wray says:

    Interesting to see the discussion pulling out “softer skills” and to read the different experiences of managers and business owners mentioned so far.

    Naturally, the comments contain opinion and anecdotes. Our experiences of recruiting, or being recruited, are memorable because such choices made at a single point in time can have long-lasting effects (both good and not so good).

    I thought I’d chip in with some links to some evidence around skills demand pulled from employer surveys.

    The West Midlands Regional Observatory (disclaimer: my former employer) researched skills supply and demand at a Birmingham level and regional (ha, I can now freely say “regional” in the online space!). The Observatory’s skills research team wrote a paper in Feb 2011 on “Skills Gaps & Deficiencies”. There’s an interesting section (starting on page 14) on the types of main skills lacking in the current West Midlands workforce:

    “Two thirds of West Midlands employers with skill gap problems in 2009 cited deficiencies in technical and practical skills which tend to be specific to sectors or industries or in some cases individual organisations. At the same time, however, deficiencies in ‘softer’ generic skills are also a common problem. For example some 43% of employers with gaps cited deficiencies in customer handling skills and the figure was 39% for problem solving, 38% for team working, 35% for oral communication and 32% for both management skills and general IT user skills.”

    The data is a little old now (LSC National Employer Skills Survey 2009) but I think the paper is still relevant to Birmingham today. If you’re interested in more timely data and digging deeper, there is more from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills.

  13. Kate Cooper says:

    Manager, business owners, skills, interviews . . . all employer-employee stuff.

    What if employment, mass employment is a thing of the past? What if most people don’t have a ‘job’? What if there are a few big companies, often global in reach, employing tens of thousands . . . and everyone else . . . doing their own thing either as freelancers or in (very) small companies like Podnosh.

    What Podnosh needs in terms of employees is miniscule in terms of numbers. You ain’t going to employ thousands, Nick. Ever. And that’s because what you do can’t be replicated; you need oddballs, mavericks, just-do-it people. (That’s a compliment, incidentally, Gavin and Steph.)

    What you don’t want, Nick, is people doing the same thing, to whatever high quality. But the same thing over and over again.

    That’s how we undertand mass employment now. In call centres, behind supermarket tills, in admin offices, working (some) machines, down the mines, building cars, ships, roads, rails, canals . . .

    And often machines are more “efficient” in these tasks. Automated call centres, do-it-yourself-checkouts, making cars, drugs, TVs, digging coal out of the ground. A release from drudgery? Creating an a-social, impersonal world?

    David Ault’s story is common enough . . . among graduates and/or the self-confident.

    It’s difficult to get our heads round what the exciting possibilities of mass unemployment are, once we’ve freed ourselves of the idea of being employed, P60s, 9-5 and all that — i.e. things being done to us, other people ‘providing’ jobs or, if you’re a politician ‘creating’ jobs (which I think means stingy subsidies)

    So what can provide labour-intensive work that’s interesting, fun, creative, rewarding in every sense of the word?

    Now that’s a question that’s worth answering . . . actually, a far better question that asking Nick and other SME bosses what the skills are they look on the rare occasions they recruit.

    And yes, of course it means changing the way we’re rewarded for working; we all need pay our way housing, bills, buying stuff like a washing machine, car, holiday or, as I did t’other week, dealing with the consequences of an exploding loo cistern.

    Simone de Beauvoir, rock on.

    • Nick Booth says:

      You may or may not be right about mass unemployemnt, and figuring out others ways for people to do fruitful things and for economic rewards to be distributed.

      However I do think being able to solve the problem of employing people for values even in large organisations will help create new businesses that thrive. So it isn’t simply an issue for small – it is partly how small will become large and partly how large will flourish.

      • Kate Cooper says:

        Mass unemployment might be a moot point — mass worklessness is already with us. Nationally, only about 70% of people of working age are in work, locally its nearer 60%.

        Add in the retired, the young, the ‘at home’ (eg many mums), the ill, the disabled, the students . . . and most of us don’t work.

        And of those that do, many are like David Ault, as I’ve been most of my working life.

        Working for 40 years and getting a retirement present at the end of it are long gone, perhaps never were . . .

  14. Lorraine says:

    I think there’s an opportunity for those on what I call the edge of their “third career” – the first being the one you initially study/train for and the second being the one where you spend the bulk of your working years.

    The third is the massive (and fast growing) pool of talent that’s underutilised due to redundancy/contracts and funding ending/many consultants and freelancers with very little work. These people have a lifetime of transferable skills (awful phrase) that could be used to help young people develop the holistic, interpersonal qualities that we’re saying are so critical – in support of and not replacing – some level of technical or academic learning.

    So many young people(some friends’ children included) are being brought up able to interact seamlessly with anything that has a screen but with little conversation or little conversational ability and it’s time to redress the balance urgently.

    Such an initiative would need to be funded somehow, natch, but would help to find a way for formerly successful employers and valued employees with time on their hands (which unfortunately is increasingly people in their mid 40’s not 60’s) share their experience, skills and knowledge whilst also remaining economically more active than would otherwise be the case. With all the associated health and well-being benefits that would also bring, a neat additional bonus.

    I realise this is digressing from the initial thread but somewhere in everyone’s comments there is a solution. Connecting those at the start of their working life, or ideally earlier, with those who are approaching what’s likely to be the end without some form of intervention, is one that’s worth a closer look. It’d take time, effort and knocking on doors to get a funded pilot project off the ground but it’d be great for Birmingham to take control and try and find a solution for itself. Because we’ll wait an awful long time for anyone to do it for us.

  15. Dear Everyone

    Brilliant discussion – just brilliant! Thank you.

    One of the themes I am increasingly troubled by is the difference between (1) having an understanding of a topic and (2) being able to act on it. The existing standard public sector approach to any issue (including the skills issue) depends upon big-brained people at the centre getting hold of a lot of data, identifying themes and causes, and designing interventions. Attractive though this (masculine, engineering) paradigm might be, the last few decades have produced more than enough evidence that it does not work. The “systems” that work are more responsive, organic; those that don’t require a central designer, but which are characterised by the greater connectivity of the various elements. Think Podnosh. But also think automotive supply chain. I think this is the central point that emerges from all the comments above: whatever the global/national/regional trends might or might not tell us, progress on the skills agenda is made when people connect. Those people might work in training organisation and in employers; they might be individuals seeking work and employers seeking workers; they might be people looking to upskill and people who can offer skills training.

    Yes, there is a need for a macro perspective on skills trends, but such a perspective has to be handled with humility. There is clear evidence that governments (and other high level observers) are very poor at “picking winners”. A more important macro task is to ensure that the (organic) system is able to flex and respond to changing conditions. And particular agencies, such as the LEP, might be able to help create the future by focusing on a small number of inspirational people/themes and making stuff happen. This might work better than trying to predict the future, and trying to build a comprehensive machinery for responding to it…

    What you have got me thinking, therefore, is that the focus perhaps should be on: (1) helping employers and skills organisations connect better; (2) setting a few inspirational people free to make interesting things happen in potentially exciting arenas (e.g. life sciences) which create new economic drivers around them; and (3) making core human skills (numbers, comms, connecting) what education is shaped around.

    Anyway – thank you, again. I will feed this in to the LEP employment and skills discussion and see how it goes. I’m a bit worried about being either a heretic or a simpleton, but let’s see.

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