Talent Spotting

By David Mundell, Managing Director

David Mundell, Managing Director of Axis Security, discusses the challenges facing the security industry today, and where he sees there may be light at the end of the tunnel.

Recruitment is a key issue in any industry. Finding, training and then retaining the best talent is what all businesses strive to achieve, for not only does it help to grow a strong and sustainable company, but it is also a defining factor in the delivery of a consistent service to the client. What has always been a difficult challenge, however, is today becoming even harder still.

A Shallow Pond

The September 2016 Bulletin from the Department of Work and Pensions stated that ‘employment continues to run at a record high of 74.5% and the unemployment rate holds firm at 4.9%, its lowest in more than 10 years’. While this is excellent news for most of the country, and indeed our economy, for firms like ours and working in our sector it means that the pond from which we can fish for new talent becomes smaller.

Additionally, in many cases, the wages that are on offer for security personnel tend to compare unfavourably to less onerous or responsible tasks where the hourly rates are much higher. Put bluntly, people can be paid more for holding a less responsible position, and it is understandable why they would choose to do so.

Indeed, hourly rates can still be an Achilles heel. Axis Security is proud to be an active supporter of The London Living Wage and in the main, the London clientele understand and are willing to pay attractive rates. But, where pay increases within companies have recently ranged from 0-2%, it can often be a hard justification for buyers of security to award higher increases to supporting contractors. This situation is exacerbated in contracts that are out of town in the leafy suburbs, as these areas are typically also less fertile grounds from which to draw new recruits; better-paid jobs are available, and the demographic is such that there are simply not enough people we can attract.

Licensing Talent

Perhaps a more controversial issue regarding the shortage of staff relates to the licensing regime and ongoing training.

When licensing was first introduced, security companies would recruit, train and support candidates through their license applications. Today, however, the industry has a huge pool of licensed individuals who we believe are simply not up to the high standards required of today’s security officer. Legally they are fully entitled to work, and the license should suggest at least an entry level of training has been delivered. But all too often, the training, knowledge and skills they should have appear to be lacking, which is either an indictment of the individual, or may in part be down to the quality – or lack of quality – in the training process. Either way, some licensed officers are simply unemployable if we wish to retain the same high standards of quality that our clients have come to expect.

But that’s not to say that the situation is in any way a lost cause. Several recent Government initiatives are opening up new pools of talent, one of the most exciting being created by the new Apprenticeship Levy.

The Apprenticeship Levy

In April next year, the Apprentice Levy will become a reality. It is a new levy on employers to contribute towards apprenticeship funding in England. It means that all UK businesses with an annual payroll bill of more than £3 million are required to contribute 0.5% of a their annual payroll to the new fund.

The Government has published its 2020 vision for English Apprenticeships where it proposes sound reasoning for this levy. It states that apprenticeships provide a typical return of £26-£28 for every £1 of Government investment in apprenticeships at levels 2 and 3. It also reports that 83% of apprentices say that their career prospects have improved since becoming apprentices, and – perhaps most important of all – that 70% of employers said apprenticeships improved the overall quality of their product or service.

Not surprisingly, not everyone sees the new levy as a cause for celebration. There is some cynicism from companies who see the levy as simply another tax on businesses, and see apprentices in general as a drain on their time-limited resources. Employers liable for the levy receive a £15K government allowance, but for the idea to really take off they need to see a real return.

Opportunity Knocks

Given the points raised earlier, I see this as an opportunity, and one that could help us to alleviate the pressures we are facing in recruitment. Like most of the top-flight employers, we run a successful trainee programme. In our case it is managed in association with an external recruitment and training agency, that uses funding provided by the Government’s Skills Funding Agency. The cost to the employer is the apprentices’ salary; they do not pay for the training. And as will be the case with the Apprentice Levy scheme, training is regulated by Ofsted, giving us some additional assurances around quality.

To date, Axis Security has taken on 11 trainees, five of whom subsequently went on to become apprentices, and of those five, four were offered full-time employment opportunities. We see this as extremely positive as it has allowed us to successfully recruit and train people to our own exacting standards, and the standards that our customers expect. By valuing new employees in this way, and by supporting them in their development, it also engenders a greater loyalty that in turn supports a higher level of retention.

There are, of course, a number of notable differences – and significant ones at that – between the scope and remit of our current trainee and apprentice system and the new ‘system’ to be launched in April of next year.

First and foremost, our existing scheme is targeted at 16 to 24-year olds, whereas the Government apprenticeship scheme is available to any and all people of working age. This will not only significantly increase the number of potential applicants, but also it opens up training opportunities to our existing employees to further their career and widen their skill set.

Also significant is that our current trainee and apprenticeship scheme has been limited to head-office HR, finance and management recruitment, whereas we will be using the wider remit of the Apprentice Levy to recruit much-needed front-line security officers.

There remain numerous questions as to exactly how the new Apprenticeship Levy will work; we do not know yet, for example, what training courses will be available and what autonomy companies will have in the selection process, and in determining the relevancy of the training provided.

While time is running low for the Government in providing definitive answers to these questions, we are concentrating on doing as much research as possible so we are in the best possible position to take advantage of a wider net of recruitment come next spring.

The Key is Investment

Having low unemployment is of course a positive position for the UK as a whole, but within this climate, end users must critically examine their security budgets if we are to retain the good quality people within our industry and more importantly, attract other high calibre individuals to join.

And as a company, in addition to investment in the Apprenticeship Levy and other schemes, the time has surely come to spread our recruitment net far wider than just those who already hold a licence? It will result in an uplift in cost, undoubtedly, but it may well be a price worth paying.