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What are the biggest recruitment challenges facing Peel Ports in 2015 and beyond?

Redesigning the HR Team and introducing an in-house recruitment team, tightening the PSL, reducing agency spend, increasing employer branding, dispelling preconceived misconceptions about a career in the ports industry, improving employee engagement and retention and working closely with the business have all been part of Howard Sloane’s HR Strategy since he took over as Group HR Director at Peel Ports Ltd in 2011. So how has he done it? And what challenges has he faced on his four year journey?

Challenges of working in a traditional industry

The UK ports industry is a traditional industry with a long history. Many cities were built around ports and because of this, a lot of people – and therefore candidates – have the misconception that organisations like Peel Ports are part of an old industry with old technology and old ways of working. And they couldn’t be further from the truth.

As an island that relies a great deal on trade with other countries, the UK ports industry is booming with a huge amount of import and export which relies on modern technology, said Sloane.

Ports are an integral part of the supply chain and the volume growth, the technology, planning and connectivity required to meet consumer demands is staggering, he added.

According to Sloane, Peel Ports, which is part of the Peel Group, is already established as a leading port group in Britain and plays a major role in the movement of goods, with five major gateways strategically located around the UK, which include: Port of Liverpool, Manchester Ship Canal, Heysham Port, London Medway Port and Clydeport. In addition, the Group operates out of Dublin, Belfast and has a shipping line and ship fabrication business.

However, when you turn to recruitment, it’s possible that a lot of people have not heard of Peel Ports, let alone are aware of what a career in the ports industry involves. Part of Sloane’s objective, therefore, has been to address this and to ensure that as well as being tasked with delivering an HR Strategy in line with Peel Ports’ overall business objectives – which is centred around growth and acquisition – he is also changing tomorrow’s candidates’ mind-sets.

In order to achieve this, the HR team has focused on three principle areas:

  1. Working very closely with the organisation to ensure Peel Ports has the right staff to actually run the business and achieve the ambitious growth targets
  2. Ensuring that existing employees were kept engaged and developed
  3. Improving the employer brand and in doing so remove the anachronistic view of a career in the ports industry so that it attracts the best possible talent.

Aligning your HR Strategy to your business needs

Peel Ports’ business strategy is aligned to that of the Peel Group which is based on growth and acquisition, particularly in the North West where a large part of Peel Ports operations are located. As such, Sloane’s HR strategy, which he designed, implemented and rolled out shortly after joining Peel Ports, is based on both existing and future growth and acquisition needs.

For example, Peel Ports is currently funding and managing the build of a £300 million deep water container terminal at the Port of Liverpool which is well under construction and is designed to tie-in with the completion of the widening of the Panama Canal. The project has been deemed necessary to accommodate over 95% of the global vessels with a container capacity of 13,500.

Unloading and distributing the staggering volumes that come through our ports is not something that can be done with a spreadsheet and computer, Sloane explains. You not only need exceptionally advanced technology to automate this process very accurately 24/7, but you also need the right calibre of staff to manage such an important logistical operating system.

It is therefore imperative that the organisation is not only recruiting the right candidates but that it is also keeping existing employees engaged and growing them in their roles.

Employer branding

When Sloane first arrived at Peel Ports in 2011, amongst other things, he noted that a number of school children at a Liverpool Careers Fair which his team had attended had never even heard of the company and some didn’t even realise that Liverpool had a busy port. This realisation not only shocked Sloane, but propelled him into action.

“How can that even be possible, I said? School children in Liverpool not realising that we have this massive port in the city region that employs hundreds of people?”

Fast forward four years and today children are queuing to speak to Peel Ports HR representatives when they attend Careers Fairs around the country. This is because part of Sloane’s HR Strategy has involved creating greater brand awareness.

To achieve this, Peel Ports has engaged further with apprenticeship programmes, reached out to local schools and colleges, been involved in the development of a university technical college and held open days. It’s also become actively involved in social media, which again was designed as part of the HR strategy.

“We’ve really opened up our doors and said ‘look, if you want an exciting career in logistics, this is a really great place to be’.” said Sloane.

“That career could be anywhere in our business and working in any discipline from materials handling to property; from marine operations to marketing; commercial development to engineering. You could even get a job in HR.”

Changing mind-sets

In addition to this, and following a series of focus groups with school-age children and young adults at colleges and University, the HR team quickly discovered that the many of them held alarmingly inaccurate and outdated beliefs regarding a career in the ports industry.

“People generally thought ports were part of a dying industry. They had a very old-world view compared to what it is actually like.”

Sloane said the insight had been invaluable because it helped him and his team come to the realisation that to build a people strategy around growth and acquisition, they would have to strive towards changing that mind-set.

Part of this has involved working more closely with universities, colleges and schools to make sure students understand who Peel Ports are and what a career in the ports industry entails.

“If you think about what a port actually is, you should really be thinking about a logistics service provider,” said Sloane, who has himself spent many years working in the industry as part of a global HR career.

“This is where we focused our attention.” And given Peel Ports current levels of credible applicants for positions within the Group, it seems to have worked.

A true business partner

Sloane recognises that in order to do their job well, the HR team has to work extremely closely with Operations, which includes the organisation’s sales teams, and in particular the Chief Operating Officer and port directors. This is to ensure that HR understands how the business makes profit and what the challenges are and for the business to understand what HR is trying to achieve.

“In many ways, we’re challenging the business to think globally but act locally. This ensures greater collaboration between the business units. And it is only by achieving this level of mutual partnership that both sides of the business can and do work together to achieve their mutual goals,” said Sloane.

Moreover, the fact that he sits on the Peel Ports operating board is crucial in helping him understand what is happening across the organisation.

“Without being able to understand the operational and financial landscape and challenges across the organisation, you will always be in the dark. In addition, by not having a say you are going to be a passive HR function, which is almost like being a passenger in the whole process. This means you become very reactive and that’s not the right place to be, particularly for an organisation that is growing.”

In fully engaging with the organisation, the HR team have been able to develop solutions that would not have been possible otherwise. This includes a significant redesign of employee benefits which are aimed at modernising Peel Ports’ employer offering. In addition they’ve setup a HR shared service with online employee portal and introduced an online flexible benefits scheme which uses salary sacrifice.

Redesigning your HR Team from the outside-in

Additionally, since joining Peel Ports in 2011, Sloane has completely redesigned the HR team.

It has gone from a very transactional focused, localised function to a technology based transformational HR team with a shared service in place, he said.

“Our focus now is always about adding value as well as removing waste out of our people pipeline. Our systems allow us to secure a lot more real time employee data for Peel Ports’ managers such as performance, absence and labour turnover. The HR team is then able to analyse and make insights on that data with the operations managers.”

Part of this redesign has also involved introducing a small in-house recruitment team of highly skilled recruiters, reducing the number of recruitment agencies on Peel Ports’ PSL from 30 down to a handful, as well as implementing a new Applicant Tracking System that has much improved the candidate experience.

Howard said his team, who have access to job boards and social networking sites such as LinkedIn, are very skilled at recruiting for Peel Ports and equally good at building up talent pools.

“We used to use agencies to fill 85 per cent of our vacancies. Now we use agencies to fill seven or eight per cent of our vacancies. Not only is this a cost reduction for the business, it’s also a smarter way for us to talent pool. The cycle of employment in our industry is cyclical and we aim to capitalise on both our brand and the value of working for one of the UK’s most strategically important logistics providers.”

Agency or in-house team?

Peel Ports currently has a permanent headcount of about 1,200 with a substantial number of third party labour to support its operations during peaks and troughs of the operations and to help manage the supply chain in terms of human capital, said Sloane.

The Group HR Director stressed he doesn’t have anything against agencies, and believes that it is entirely healthy for an organisation with the recruitment needs of Peel Ports to have good relationships with a select handful of agencies to deal with those aforementioned peaks and troughs.

However, what Sloane is not in favour of, is a blanket approach to recruitment which, he says, is damaging to the industry. In fact, he believes that good recruitment is never accidental but requires a great deal of work being put in right at the beginning of the process. Which is why the in-house team works very closely with the business and which is ultimately the key to their success, he said.

“We know what is coming up in the next 12 to 18 months, two years, three years. So we know when to start building talent pools. We have designed a method of talent projection which shows us what we need, what will likely be available and in all fairness to agencies, business don’t always give that information readily.”

Sloane said companies can tend not to like to share that sort of information with agencies which means the latter’s role is made harder. If instead agencies are made aware of what an organisation is not only working on now, but what it will be looking for in six to 12 months from now, then those agencies can also start talent pooling in readiness for that. Unfortunately for agencies, however, that sort of information is not often imparted and those agencies are only focusing on sales targets for here and now.

“That’s hard for an agency because without that information they will almost inevitably get the short end of the stick because they are going to be told ‘I need you to find someone and I need them within the next week, here is the job description’. So they haven’t had the opportunity to build a talent pool and to keep people warm. In an ideal world they’d start familiarising candidates with the business over a six to 12 month period and say look we’ve got these projects coming up, would you be interested? What would it take to make you interested?”

He added: “And again, coming back to the relationships that we have as an HR function with Operations, if we weren’t close to Operations and we didn’t understand what they needed, then we wouldn’t be able to find the best people for them. This is crucial to practising HR.”

Going beyond cost savings

Part of the reason to take recruitment in-house did indeed involve cost savings. However, it was not just about that, Sloane stressed.

“It’s what happens when that individual gets in as well. We had to redesign our entire on-boarding procedure and the new HR Shared Service team, called HR Connect, now manages an end-to-end process of getting people into our business. That team is also connected with the internal resourcing team and in doing so enables greater communication through our People Pipeline and to our new and existing colleagues.”

According to their statistics, the in-house team is doing a better job than agencies at keeping new recruits happy; happy being defined according to HR metrics such as: Do you still love your job six months after being employed? Are you still performing well? What is your sickness record like?

“When I first arrived roles were filled according to need and ‘as and when’ a vacancy came up; there was little long-term talent planning in place,” he said.

Using and working with your PSL

Today, Peel Ports has taken a blended approach to recruitment, using the in-house team to fill the majority of vacancies and a PSL to augment it when the volume is high or for niche roles, said Sloane.

“This blended approach works for our organisation right now. It’s possible this won’t be the right solution forever but it works for now... It makes sense for the team to use a blended approach by utlising the PSL and working with our agency partners to try and pool that resource for certain roles.”

It is therefore important to have good relationships with agencies based on openness and honesty, Sloane added.

“So my view is that the resourcing team within Peel Ports will have to work much more closely with our PSL, which is very small in number, to help our agency partners understand what we are trying to achieve, where the peaks will be, the certain skill sets that we are looking for and then, in doing that, they will be able to pool their resources far more strategically.”

According to Sloane this approach will be much more effective than simply dipping into the PSL as a last minute resort during busy periods; particularly since post 2011 they are no longer a big agency customer.

What is the biggest recruitment challenge facing an organisation like Peel Ports?

“For me, it’s all about behaviour,” said Sloane.

“Our real challenge is not about the technical skill sets. If somebody has worked in a similar industry then you can likely find the necessary skill sets if you look hard enough. I think the real challenge is finding the right people with the right behaviour.”

Skills can be trained and are in fact often trained because the UK educational system is not designed to meet all of the direct educational needs of the ports industry, said Sloane. There are some academic providers who work in our sector, but many don’t. We are now working with a number of universities to help design degree courses and for others, higher apprenticeships, in order to tackle the skills agenda.

“If you’ve worked within logistics, or in fact if you’ve worked in automation or manufacturing, or within the aerospace industry, then we’re interested in talking to you, particularly around engineering skills. You don’t have to have been working in a port because the marine side of it is only one part of what we do. We’re a logistics service provider.”

As such, the HR team puts a lot of effort into finding candidates with the right attitude.

“It takes a lot of effort to find the right type of colleague to work at Peel Ports and to bring him/her into your organisation. We work really hard to ensure that candidates are right for our business and in doing so enjoy their careers with us.”

The right candidate

Peel Ports is, according to Sloane, going through a renaissance; from a traditional industry business into a 21st Century logistics service provider with massive investments in technology and infrastructure. As such, it requires employees who share this vision.

“That sort of thinking and mentality, which is almost entrepreneurial, is a positive behaviour that sets us apart from our competitors. It’s certainly a tremendously exciting place to work.”

Although finding this type of candidate is a tall order, Sloane said the HR team uses a variety of assessment tools including aptitude and personality testing to ensure they are getting the right staff with the right attitude and behaviours.

“We are never satisfied unless it’s 100% right and that’s why it’s a challenge, but we are getting there,” concluded Sloane.


Howard Sloane’s three top tips about how Peel Ports and other organisations facing similar challenges can overcome their recruitment challenges

  1. It is important to forge closer relationships with your recruitment partners and to help agencies understand your organisation’s competency framework so that both sides can deliver more effectively.
  2. Innovate in terms of co-branding within the recruitment industry. For example working on joint case studies and papers with the education sector which will give students insight into the range and breadth of jobs within the ports industry or other industries like it. Consider social media platforms to engage people via their smartphones, 24/7.
  3. Recruiters, large employers and the educational sector need to start focusing on celebrating success more, in particular when organisations like Peel Ports are involved in large scale projects such as the one currently being undertaken at Port of Liverpool, called Liverpool2. This will ensure pride in the industry and make potential candidates consider it as a viable option. Moreover by celebrating success, organisations like Peel Ports will be in a stronger position to attract top talent either through their own team or in partnership with their PSL, which is crucial, particularly given the gap in STEM technology skills in the UK.