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Employers admit discrimination;Further Education

Aberdeen businesses want a flexible workforce, but many have fixed ideas about whom to employ. Neil Munro reports

EMPLOYERS ARE particularly satisfied with the service they get from further education colleges, according to a survey of companies in Aberdeen. The findings confirm the view that employers value the personal qualities of job applicants, especially the ability to communicate, above paper qualifications. The study also found, however, that companies admitted discriminating against some groups. The the investigation carries a warning for ministers that their cherished policy of social inclusion could be knocked off course by the employment practices of some businesses.

Almost half of the 295 Aberdeen employers in the study by the Robert Gordon University said they had "very useful" assistance from the FE sector, presumably Aberdeen College, in training their staff. Professional bodies came next, with a 39 per cent approval rating, then higher education institutions at 36 per cent.

Aberdeen City Council commissioned the research by the University's centre for international labour market studies. The focus is on skills, employment and social exclusion.

A third of the employers said most job applicants lack the necessary formal qualifications. But while these were seen as an important prerequisite for employment, they were not felt to be responsible for shortages in the workforce. Employers rated the "attitudes" and core skills of job applicants more highly. The key competencies included basic literacy and numeracy, presentational qualities, communicative aptitudes, IT skills and the ability to work as part of a team.

But a third of employers said these all-important skills were lacking. The most common concern, expressed by 32 per cent, was over inadequate communication skills. Employers were least worried about a shortage of IT skills, mentioned by only 22 per cent.

The study reaches the same conclusions as many others: employers want a will motivated, flexible workforce with transferable skills. But the Robert Gordon report also carries a warning for employers. "Our survey results indicate that employers themselves lack flexibility when it comes to the provision of training. A considerable number of respondents admitted to discriminatory behaviour on the grounds of inconsistent employment histories, contractual arrangements (part-time, temporary posts), age and gender. Employers also appear to display a degree of inflexibility when terms and working conditions need to be changed to attract appropriate personnel."

The report suggests that employers could ease some labour shortages by making their working conditions more attractive to prospective employees, including access to training. "Employers will need to be made aware that a lack of labour market flexibility does not always imply supply side problems in the market," it says.

The authors of the report, Professor Thomas Lange and David Gibbons-Wood, say staff recruitment and retention problems start from isolated work, bad access to training, low participation, unequal treatment and no long-term employment perspective. Employers need to integrate their workers into the company: "Without efforts to integrate, temporary and part-time positions will lead to social exclusion and a lack of cohesion at work."

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