Tony Wilson: "We're operating in quite an unstable environment"

The new Institute for Employment Studies director shares his views on the challenges employers face during uncertain times

Tony Wilson: "We're operating in quite an unstable environment"

Tony Wilson has recently taken up the reins as the new director of the Institute for Employment Studies (IES). The former director of policy and research at the Learning and Work Institute caught up with People Management to discuss the productivity puzzle, Brexit and ever-changing employment regulation.  

What are you most looking forward to working on at IES?

I’m looking forward to working with a great team who have made, and are making, an important difference to workplace policies. At the moment, there’s a huge opportunity to influence employment practice. IES is well placed to do that. I’m lucky I’m joining a successful organisation that’s achieved a lot in the last few years.

Given the challenges we face in the economy, there are some pretty big issues to tackle. For example, we need to widen labour market participation – we’ve got record employment but we’ve also got too many groups locked out. There are also two linked issues around pay and productivity. How can we improve productivity at a time of low growth?

What have you enjoyed most about your time at the Learning and Work Institute?

Learning and Work operates in similar fields to IES. They’ve been focused in recent years around some of the same issues, particularly around low pay and progression, labour market inclusion and adult skills. The other big area Learning and Work has been focused on has been devolution and how we can better support local labour markets to make the most of the opportunities they’ve been given. As organisations, we’ve worked together over the years. I already know the people and the projects at IES well.

What are the biggest challenges facing employers at the moment?

At the moment, it’s hard to look much beyond our departure from the EU. Brexit is affecting everything. IES is active through its Brexit Observatory and thought leadership. 

But we’re also operating at a time of labour shortages, even though we’ve got relatively low growth. We’re seeing an increase in skills shortage vacancies so employers are struggling to get the skills they need to fill jobs. They’re also grappling with a changing regulatory and political environment, with the recent introduction of the apprenticeship levy and gender pay gap reporting, as well as incoming pay ratio reporting requirements. This is quite an unstable environment we’re operating in.

If I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that individual employer experiences can differ hugely according to the labour markets they operate in, their size, how they’re run and managed and their sectors. I think this is where IES has added value over the years through its HR network, and through its quite focused work with specific sectors and employer representative groups. 

How could employers better support their staff during times of uncertainty?

First, I would say there’s a lot of good practice out there already. As well as IES’ projects, there’s been work led by Business In The Community, the CIPD, sector bodies and a range of others.

Second, I would say it’s becoming increasingly important to address issues with employee finance, debt and poverty. There’s a lot of work already being done on how employers can better support employees to be more financially secure, to manage their money better and also thinking about simple workplace adaptations which can help people to cope with life events.