Lessons about sustainable employability and a look back at the second conference on employability in the 21st century

The second international conference on employability in the 21st century has already flashed by us. Approximately 150 attendees were inspired by the latest insights into the central question: ‘How can we succeed in sustainably attracting more people and keep them working longer?’. The participants were a unique mix of academics active in diverse disciplines, managers and CEOs, professionals with extensive practical experience, and consultants. The presence of a good ten faces from the corporate world at the 2018 edition was particularly inspiring. It shows there are more and more organisations coming to the realisation that employability is a theme that cannot be dropped from the management agenda. The combination of ageing, technological developments and globalisation is having an undeniable impact on job content, the work organisation and the way in which people feel connected with the organisation.

Here at Securex, we see health (ability), as well as motivation and resilience (agility), as being inseparable from each other. In our view, employability only works if all stakeholders stand behind it: working individuals (and their representatives), organisations and governments.

We hope that every participant found inspiration in the diverse presentations and speeches. The example from Ageas (Bart De Smet, CEO Ageas) certainly set the tone. It is therefore time for us to take a look at what we are taking away from the two days of the congress. We most certainly don’t want you to miss out on all that we learnt.

About employability

The days of the silo mentality are over. Working on employability requires a multidisciplinary approach in which the medical world, HR, management and others all support each other. This demands, above all, a new sort of leadership with an eye on the long term, where much less focus is placed on the results achieved today or tomorrow. And while we know the ingredients we need to successfully complete this recipe, there needs to be a good cook to mix them in the right proportions if we want to meet the demands and tastes of the public. In other words, since every organisation has its own culture, its own DNA, activities and profiles, it is a major challenge to work out a policy around employability. It is a balancing exercise in which we establish the difference between what is possible and what is achievable. One of the basic preconditions of such a policy is that an organisation must be prepared to create a work context that takes individual needs into account. Essenscia (Yves Verschueren, President ECEG) is already setting a good example of this with the introduction of ‘demography fund’.

The different stakeholders

There are three protagonists in the story of employability: the professionally active population (and their representatives), the organisations and the government. At Employability21, there was enough inspiration to satisfy each of these actors.

Working individuals have to be aware that they now need to work for longer (and will need to work for even longer than that in the future), possibly even in different roles. Delegating careers or career choices to third parties is not an option. Knowledge is particularly transient and as such, (additional) learning must be always be a consideration, or more accurately, a reflex. A career in the future will consist of a number of transitions, not just in terms of role, but also in terms of employer. According to Professor Dr Jos Akkermans from the VU Amsterdam, the development of career competences (the broadening of a network, thinking about Plan B and reflecting on your own commitment) in this context is a necessity. Last but not least, health is also a responsibility each individual needs to face up to. The number of years of good health left to each of us after retirement is not just related to the physical and mental burden of the work we do, but also to the activities we pursue in our free time.

Organisations usually take a reactive approach to employability issues. Absenteeism is only really examined if someone becomes sick, we only appoint a coach to guide someone when they are already suffering from burnout, and we only make changes to work posts after a problem has become clear. Typically, we only act after recognising that an issue has led to certain costs. There are very few organisations today that develop proactive initiatives:

  • How can we encourage our workforces to exercise and eat healthily?
  • How can we make workforces more aware of their competences and talents?
  • How can we actively encourage and support learning?
  • How can we prevent burnout?

Management rarely jumps at the idea of supporting projects of this nature. Nonetheless, the investments they make do not just contribute to attracting talent (employer branding), but also to keeping it and making it more sustainable. People who feel positive are more committed, are sick less frequently, are (consequently) more productive, offer clients better service, are more open to change and contribute more to innovation.

Governments urgently need to make a modern legal framework that is representative of working in the 21st century. It needs to take important factors into account, such as working hours, workplaces, the work organisation, job content and workplace relations. This must happen without any clear links to the surrender of benefits or protections. Together with its social partners, the government needs to look for a legal framework that mobilises and engages people at a professionally active age.

The problem? The fact that in all but one case, despite its importance as a group (and a protagonist in the story of employability), government representatives were not to be found at the congress. A missed opportunity in light of the many recent scientific insights into questions that were addressed by Professor Dr Hugo Westerlund from the Stress Research Institute Stockholm:

  • Does everyone need to work longer?
  • Can everyone work longer?
  • What impact will working longer have on health?
  • What initiatives can be taken?

Science and practice

From the congress programme, it appears that the academic and practical worlds are often very far apart from each other. It is also clear that bringing these two worlds closer to each other would be beneficial. During the congress, we found ourselves at the crossroads of knowledge of the two worlds, only to realise that the rules about who had the right of way at the intersection were still up in the air. It is vitally important to establish clear, substantive policy and a better balance, with empathy for the challenges that each party faces.

To close

We would like to thank all participants and speakers for their contributions to this exceptional event. For all we learnt and achieved, we are convinced that there is still room for improvement in the area of employability.

In Iceland, a large section of the population continues working beyond the age of 70. In Japan, 42% of the working population is convinced they will continue working indefinitely. Various speakers have highlighted the fact that, for us too, the legal age of retirement will need to be raised higher. And that legitimises the need to keep thinking constructively and optimistically. Even after this second Employability21 congress.

Frank Vander Sijpe – Director HR Research Securex