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What to do when ‘you just can’t get the staff’

The talent crisis. The war for talent. The skills gap.

It's called different things but whenever you goto a conference, attend a seminar or just talk to anyone in the creative and digital industries, the odds are that very quickly the conversation will return to the problem everyone feels – finding and keeping great people.


In pretty much all the work we do with companies across the sector – whether in tech, film, app design, digital marketing, web services – whatever – it’s a common thread that keeps working its way into our coaching.

There’s a lot to say on the topic (and even more to do!), so we’ll be writing a chunk about this over the coming months. However for now, like any good doctor – let’s start with the diagnosis. Remedies follow.

The problem has a number of factors at play, but let’s use an old school framework to frame the issue. Good old Supply and Demand.


As the ball keeps gathering momentum in rolling down the hill of digital adoption and our collective addiction to devices, organisations of every shape and size are embracing digital at the core of their offer. And it’s not just the Amazon’s, Uber’s and Netflix of this world. It’s the charity that wants to get its message out. The bank that needs to lower the cost of transactions. The government agency with “citizen engagement” targets to meet. The restaurant that wants to tell everyone how just spicy its food is.

Pure online players like have an in-house SEO team that if it were an external agency would be one of the biggest in the UK. The UK’s government digital service (GDS) was set up in 2011. By 2013 it had 200 staff and was rightly being described as “the best startup we can’t invest in”. By 2015 it had more than doubled to over 500. Traditional marketing agencies and ad houses are waking upto digital. And all the while tech startups and digital agencies need creatives and developers to keep up with the relentless pace of ideas that there are to make a difference online.

So all told, demand for skills in digital and tech is huge. And all of this means that people with those skills have a massive array of options for where they can go and work. It’s very much a seller’s market, so to speak.


As a country the UK is one of the most advanced western nations in its digital skillset. The recent Tech Nation report highlighted how we’ve managed to fill over 1.5m jobs in Digital tech and that the number of jobs in that part of the economy grew 3x faster than the rest of the UK’s economy between 2011 and 2014.

That said, supply is short. By definition “experienced coders” are tough to come by because technology is changing so quickly. It will take years before the changes in recent years to introduce coding into school curriculum will be felt in the workplace and then there’s the well documented gender problem in attracting women into the DCT industries.

In the meantime, millennial lifestyle means that many in their 20s and 30s are opting to go freelance, demanding to work much more flexibly than their predecessors. So whilst the demand is huge, we’re a way off from having matching, steady and reliable supply of skills.

“The wisdom in the middle”

So what to do. The first thing is to avoid the extremes of reaction. Some folk give into the narrative that if you’re not in London or San Francisco then there’s no point and we might as well either accept staying small or give into accepting sub-standard staff.

The opposite extreme says that there is a magic bullet to attracting and retaining talent. Just follow this formula / take these steps / adopt this model and your staffing woes will disappear. That’ll $2,000 in four convenient monthly instalments please. Paypal works great.

Yeah…no thanks.

We adopt a more “wisdom in the middle approach”. There is definitely a shortage, not just of pure technical or creative skills but of folk who have those skills that also have the desired experience and the inherent values that will make them a great fit for your organisation.

But there are lots of things you can do to attract, hire and retain great people. One thing to flesh out in more detail here is to pay attention to your employee proposition.

You only want customers to give you their money. But your employees are giving you a chunk of their life.


Lots of companies expend a lot of effort, hire consultants and book away days to articulate their “customer proposition”. That is what they offer to customers both in a tangible (the actual product) and intangible form (the brand experience, the customer service etc) to win in the marketplace.

But very few pay attention to their employee proposition. i.e. what are you going to offer employees to win in the battleground for talent? What are the tangible (the cash or equity / holidays / benefits plans) and the intangible (your culture / your team / the autonomy of the role / development opportunities) aspects of what someone will find attractive?

The idea here is to do the thinking up front so that when great people cross your path (and they will) you’re ready to make the most of the opportunity you have to get them in before they disappear to someone else who did that thinking better and faster than you did.

Someone who is world class at this is the creative, digital product studio – Ustwo, who we’ll be visiting at their studio in Sweden next week as part of our Invent programme.

From humble beginnings as a couple of friends doing cool stuff in digital 10 years ago to where they are now with 300 staff across London, New York, Sydney and Malmo, they’ve done great things as a creative company including winning the ipad game of the year in 2014 for the epic  Monument Valley.

Who takes the time to write a 48 page culture manifesto? They do. Who then also writes a 32 page visually engaging “Benefits Deck” outlining what new-hires can expect from working there. They do.

And that’s one of the reasons why they’re a “destination employer”. UsTwo are talent magnets. And when that talent is in front of them on the other side of the interview table, their proposition is crystal clear. It’s about doing the best work of your life.

Whilst that might seem daunting, not everyone has to write hundreds of beautifully presented slides to make a similar impact – the key question is, what does your version of an employee proposition look like?

If you’re starting from scratch – here’s some simple action steps.

  1. Make a list of the hard / tangible benefits an employee can expect.
  2. Make a list of the soft / personal benefits. If you struggle doing this then why not ask a few people (employees / suppliers / partners / customers) what they enjoy about doing work with you? Ask yourself what makes you keep coming to work.
  3. Think about how you’ll articulate these benefits at the different stages of your hiring process (role adverts, interview, assessment, contract).

Anyway, what do you think?