Carillion reveals the real threat to jobs - debt

By Neil Patrick

The Yas Viceroy Abu Dhabi Hotel built by Carillion. Photo credit:Rob Alter

When I started work on my book with Marcia LaReau, Careermageddon, we did not have an agenda. Our view was that the evidence will take us where it will.

But after three years research, even I was surprised where we ended up as we sought to discover the real destroyers of jobs.

Careermageddon is a politically neutral book. The conventional ‘wisdom’ about jobs from the left is that government must borrow and spend to create jobs. Amongst the right it is that the free market is more efficient, therefore tax cuts and business friendly policies are the best framework.

The trouble with the free market is that if government uses private contractors, it does not absolve itself of risk, because private companies act primarily in the interests of shareholders and investors. And this can lead to some pretty nasty outcomes for employees and customers.

This week we have seen the unravelling of Carillion, one of the biggest construction firms in the UK. It holds numerous government construction contracts including the UK's high speed rail network expansion, HS2. I flagged this three years ago here as an example of government spending folly.

Carillion is massively in debt. The debt burden is so great that the future of the firm and around 20,000 UK jobs and a further 23,000 overseas jobs hang in the balance. It has a £900m debt pile and £600m shortfall on its pension plan.

It is just the latest in a long and sorry catalogue of failed businesses which are massively over borrowed to the point that even the smallest shortfalls in revenues compound over time to become catastrophic.

The biggest threat to jobs which we identified in Careermageddon is not technology. It’s not migrant workers. It’s not globalisation.

It’s debt. Personal debt, corporate debt, and government debt.

Whatever happens to Carillion, the debt spiral will be even more compounded – it won’t be written off, it will just move and spread elsewhere.

Which leads me to three simple conclusions. Government needs to take greater oversight of the debt vulnerability of firms it contracts with. Business needs to borrow less and invest more not in executive bonuses and shareholder dividends, but in long term assets and debt reduction. And people need to reduce their personal debt so they have greater financial resilience when disaster strikes.

It might not be fun, but if you want to make a worthwhile new year’s resolution, reducing debt is a much more worthwhile one than most that I have heard.

Why can’t the BBC tell us what’s really happening?

By Neil Patrick
The Bank of England:
 Remembered where the UP button was yesterday

In my opinion, yesterday was the best news day in the UK since I started this blog. Yet anyone watching or reading the UK mainstream news could be forgiven for assuming quite the opposite.

I'm referring to the news that the Bank of England is raising interest rates for the first time in over 10 years.

The simple and obvious impact of this is that if you are a saver, this is minor good news. If you are a borrower, it’s not. Yet reality is seldom this binary and most people both save and borrow albeit in varying proportions.

So the BBC TV News thought it would be appropriate to ask two types of people what they thought. One who was struggling with a low income, a mortgage and the costs of a young family. The other a retired bloke who relied on his savings income. Naturally enough, they gave totally predictable answers. The saver that it would make little difference to his income and the borrower that any extra costs would be hard for them to bear.

I guess this is the result of the BBC striving to be inclusive; less London centric and eliteist. But it turned much better news than any sports victory, royal wedding or Oscar win, into the overall message that whether you’re a borrower or a saver, there's little to celebrate.

The Guardian’s headline followed a similar vein – More costly mortgages in wake of rates rise’. Buried in this piece was the fact that this amounts to a £22 a month increase on average for homeowners with mortgages. It didn’t mention that those on the lowest incomes will have smaller mortgages and so their increase will typically be much less.

I’m not saying that this isn’t tough for those on the lowest incomes. But this news is a minor revelation. It represents a tentative first step back towards normality from which all will ultimately benefit. This is the real story, but it’s just not reported that way.

The increase was just 25 basis points (0.25%), taking the base rate from its all-time low of 0.25% to 0.5%. This isn’t a hike, it’s a tiny increase. I am old enough to remember when base rates reached 17% and a 1.00% move in either direction barely merited a mention. Yet the BBC described this news as ‘interest rates will be doubled’. Technically correct, but also completely misleading to anyone who doesn’t watch these things closely.

Mark Carney, the Canadian Governor of the Bank of England has proven to be a shrewd judge of when to intervene with rate changes. With inflation at around 3%, high levels of employment (despite poor wage growth) and growing consumer debt, a rate increase has been on the cards for months now.

As central bankers repeat ad nauseum, base rates are a blunt instrument, but they are also an immediate way to cool things down, especially inflation. Carney described it as ‘easing off the gas a little’. In other words, moving further away from the quantitative easing panic button which was pressed repeatedly in 2008 to retain liquidity in the wake of the collapse.

It is also an experiment to see how things react. The FTSE 100 surged:

The pound fell a couple of cents against the US dollar. This is not a catastrophe – it’s a fairly normal adjustment. And it’s part of why a free-floating domestic currency is so helpful in keeping an economy under control. The Greeks would chop off a finger I reckon to have that option.

I predict further small rises leading up to the Article 50 deadline on 29 March 2019, unless there is some drastic reaction which persuades against this path. Carney wants to ensure that whatever form Brexit finally assumes, when it happens, he has the scope to move rates accordingly to keep the UK ship stable.

Forget what the Westminster monkeys on both sides are saying about Brexit. The Bank of England is doing a fine job of preparing us for any scenario. And bear in mind that the BBC and the mainstream press have long forgotten how to tell us the things we really need to know.

Big firms are trashing their own people assets

Age and experience exposes the naivete of youth Clip courtesy BBC's The Apprentice

By Neil Patrick

Recently I had some bad news from a friend. His wife had been laid off in a corporate restructuring.

This lady had spent over ten years with a global blue chip employer and through professionalism and hard work had risen to the position of Global Marketing Director.

She’d done absolutely nothing to deserve her ejection. On the contrary, she had been diligent and committed. Her results and appraisals had been excellent. Her colleagues thought highly of her.

Yet in an HR spreadsheet exercise, she and several hundred other senior colleagues were terminated. No ifs, buts, or options. Just out.

Age is always side slipped in diversity programmes

The firm’s plan was to cull the most senior and expensive people and hire younger – and of course cheaper people. Doubtless, someone had bandied around the term ‘Digital natives’ in the discussions about this decision.

Perversely, their website talks a lot about creating a more diverse workforce – yet this diversity appears to mean just gender and ethnic diversity. They seem to have forgotten that age is also a diversity issue and a protected characteristic in law (in the UK, under the Equality Act, 2010).

Money talks and…you know the rest

I understand a severance package (doubtless constructed with bullet proof legal advice) is in place. But this is not the point.

The point is that this is no doubt thought of as cutting out the dead wood and saving money in the process.

We need to look at people as part of the balance sheet more than the P&L

The second irony is that her employer is one of the biggest and most prestigious advisory and consulting firms in the world. i.e people you’d expect to understand that assets like people are part of the balance sheet (at least conceptually), not just a cost on the Profit and Loss account.

Older and more expensive people are more valuable than younger and cheaper people. We need them both and we need them to work together respecting and harnessing each other’s unique skills and aptitudes.

After so many years, my friend’s wife is older. She’s more experienced. She’s more valuable than however many cheaper young people they could hire instead. Perhaps not if this was a potato farm. But this is a global leader in knowledge-based advice and solutions for large corporations and organisations. They trade in intellectual capital. And intellectual capital isn't bought, it is grown and nurtured over years.

How many times do we hear CEOs spouting the mantra that ’Our people are our most valuable asset’?

That’s right. They are. And when you have invested a decade in nurturing an asset, surely it’s idiotic to just throw it away for a cheaper and less effective one?

But she’s in marketing; like its cousins, sales and advertising, marketing jobs are notorious for over-valuing one personal characteristic; youth.

Ageism is illegal in the UK. But it is also the last of the ‘isms’ to remain socially acceptable. And since it is so easy to fudge, many employers breach this law routinely.

So her chances of a rapid and smooth transition to a comparable role elsewhere are slim and will become slimmer with each month which passes.

There’s no such thing as a specialism where youth trumps everything else

Most people believe that marketing demands high creativity, high energy, media know-how. Exuberance and slick presentation skills don’t hurt either. These are characteristics which are incorrectly (see my post about this here), believed to be more prevalent amongst the young. The reality is something else. Effective marketing teams are experts at revenue generation; nurturing client relationships; data gathering and interpretation; brand building; managing specialist suppliers.

I work all the time with smart, enthusiastic young people who have marketing roles. They are wonderful. But they are also inexperienced and limited in their understanding of how to build successful businesses. They simply have not had the depth of experience to obtain the perspectives which I learned often painfully through 30 years of hard won experience.

Sure our world is transforming faster than ever before, but this doesn’t mean it is entirely different. The digital revolution doesn’t change the fundamental workings of economics and business, it just changes the ways in which these goals are attained. The Zuckerberg mythology is just that. Facebook is a success not because of Zuckerberg’s youth. It’s a success because he did better than his Silicon Valley peers…who guess what, were also young and inexperienced.

Youth alone is not a panacea for the digital age. The future belongs to those organisations who can figure out how to satisfy the aspirations and nurture the talents of young and old alike. It’s called ‘inclusivity’ guys…

Digital business is not at all beyond the comprehension of older employees. In fact I’d wager they could bring a good deal of common sense to some of the short sighted nonsense I see written about SEO, social media and other preserves of the tyros.

Please, please please, let’s stop believing that somehow culling the most experienced people is a recipe for progress.

It’s not. It’s like setting fire to your best work and flushing the ashes down the toilet…