#BCCConf 2019 highlights

A delegation of Norfolk Chambers members attended the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) annual conference on 28 March 2019.  Business Writer Huw Sayer was one of them and sent in this report.

The BCC Conference is meant to be a chance to reflect on successes in the past year and look ahead to new opportunities. Sadly, this year was different. Yes, there are of course opportunities for innovative businesses – I will touch on some in a moment. But, on the biggest question facing UK business there had been precious little progress towards fashioning a coherent and viable answer.

“Westminster cannot keep chasing rainbows”

With days to go before we leave the EU, it appears the politicians who claim or aspire to lead the UK had nothing new to say on Brexit. The same tired old ideological positions, the same apparent lack of concern for the interests of business and even a lack of understanding of how the EU works. If you wanted ‘cake’, there was plenty on offer from across the political spectrum.

No wonder Dr Adam Marshall, the BCC’s Director General, was angry. His conference speech pulled no punches and judging by the applause and comments of delegates accurately caught the mood of business. “Three years going round in circles,” pretty much sums up the whole sorry process.

As Adam said, the BCC has worked tirelessly to get “clear, precise answers to hard questions” but to no avail. It has asked for details “politicians have glossed over” but “too many critical questions remain unanswered”. The issue is not leave or remain – it’s that Chamber members need to know the terms on which we will leave the EU and what our future trading relationship will be like.

This uncertainty is already having real consequences, with many businesses now acting on the assumption we will leave with no deal. Adam spoke of investors pulling out of projects, saying they “want to invest in a more stable country”; companies mothballing factories and looking for new facilities in Europe; agri-food producers in Northern Ireland shifting south of the border to avoid potential new tariff barriers. As he said: “This is no way to run a business, let alone a country.”

How to win and retain talented employees

On a more positive note, we enjoyed listening to some excellent panel discussions and stand-alone talks from business leaders.

The most interesting talk was by Dr Pawel Adrjan, UK Economist for the global recruitment agency Indeed. It was also the most clearly presented – and, in a refreshing change from most speakers, he gave it without notes. He had three useful suggestions for businesses looking to attract and retain talented employees: search in untapped pools, use free online tools and relevant key words, and adapt your offer to suit the needs of potential recruits.

His main point was that, despite signs of ‘full-employment’, there are still plenty of people in the UK looking for work. Too many businesses still focus on an over-fished pool of potential recruits and so miss out on talent from more diverse backgrounds. They are also probably paying more for their recruits, as people who move jobs tend to get higher pay rises than those who stay put.

He noted that although the national unemployment rate is around 4%, the rates among some demographic groups are substantially higher, in particular: single parents 10.6%, people with disabilities 8.4%, people aged 18-29 7.3%, and ethnic minorities 6.3%. Where these demographics overlap, the rates are often even higher. Yet with the right incentives, such as flexible working and in-work training, these people can quickly make a valuable contribution to their employers.

The need to target diverse demographics tied in with his second point about using free online tools and being more precise in your online job ads. People are increasingly net-savvy and their job searches are becoming more sophisticated. They are using search terms like job share, flexible hours, remote working, and Monday to Friday (this last reflects a growing desire among many people for more regular work hours) – if your ad doesn’t have relevant key words, they won’t see it.

That brings us on to his final point: businesses need to adapt their jobs to meet the changing needs and desires of potential employees. It’s not all about the pay – if it ever was. Yes, salary is important but many people are also looking for work they can fit around their home life – this is particularly true of single parents and women returners. They are also looking for other intangible rewards, such as the opportunity for personal fulfilment, not just a linear career progression.

Innovation panel

This discussion, chaired by Sarah Howard MBE and Vice Chair of BCC, benefitted from a strong panel: Will Gardiner, CEO of Drax Group PLC, Kriti Sharma, Vice President of Artificial Intelligence at Sage, Polly Gilbert, social entrepreneur and Co-Founder of TAP London, and Christine Foster, Managing Director for Innovation at the Alan Turing Institute. They were looking at the changing nature of work and how new technology would influence jobs.

 In some respects, they touched on points already made by Dr Adrjan. They stressed the need to harness the potential of young people and the knowledge of older workers to create the diverse workforce needed to drive innovation. Christine Foster said it was important to give permission to work flexibly – to both our employees and ourselves. She also urged businesses to embrace technology that did away with mundane or unhealthy jobs – and use technology to improve human lives.

Polly Gilbert talked about building teams in tech companies – particularly start-ups and scale-ups. She said it was vital to agree clear roles and responsibilities at the start of any innovative project to avoid conflict later in the process. She and Kriti Sharma agreed that it was important always to start with user-led insights; otherwise, you risk ending up with an expensive bit of clever tech that no one really wants or needs.

William Gardiner reflected on the need for established companies to nurture a culture of everyday innovation. Don’t assume that innovation has to come from the top down – in fact, putting someone in charge of innovation can lead everyone else to assume it is not their responsibility. Yet lots of small changes can lead to big advances – particularly if you listen to and test ideas from people close to customers or on the factory floor.

Supporting women entrepreneurs

Finally, I would like to mention the excellent talk by Alison Rose, Deputy CEO at NatWest and CEO of the company’s Commercial & Private Banking division. She was reflecting on her report for the Government into financing for female entrepreneurs. In short, investors are failing to support and benefit from the ideas and energy of many talented business women. The unrealised potential for the UK economy is around £250bn – equivalent to 4-years of economic growth.

This is a vitally important topic – that deserves more than this summary. I urge you to read Alison’s report: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-alison-rose-review-of-female-entrepreneurship. Norfolk Chambers of Commerce will certainly return to this topic.

Catch up on social media

I hope you found this report interesting. If you want to see what other people thought about the BCC conference 2019, just search Twitter for the hashtag #BCCConf. Remember to follow @NorfolkChamber for all your local business news.

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