Most of us involved in business would agree that Wales is in pretty good shape as it approaches the end of another year.
The jobs market is generally healthy, despite pockets of serious under-performance, and I believe the quality of people entering the world of work is showing marked signs of improvement. Indeed, as we continue to enjoy low borrowing costs and generally flat inflation, the soundings from our Acorn offices throughout Wales indicate that 2005 will be another good year for the jobseeker.
I'm certain that the UK unemployment total will continue to fall from its current 4.6%, and that Wales will share in this good fortune. It follows that as employers we have to be even more adept at finding ways of hanging on to our best people and attracting talented newcomers that will help our organisations prosper. So how do companies and organisations beat their competitors in the race for the best people in 2005 and beyond?
The obvious solution for some will be a big hike in salaries, but I believe there is recognition at government, employer and worker level that this is a short-term and potentially damaging option. In some sectors, there is little choice, but for the vast majority of companies in Wales this is simply not feasible.
The answer has instead to be in finding cleverer ways of both working and rewarding staff - and it's an answer that Gordon Brown sought to provide in his pre-Budget Report a few days ago.
One of his proposals was to extend paid maternity leave from six to nine months by 2007, based on research suggesting giving employees more choice about working patterns pays off in terms of commitment and performance.
Increasing the length of time mothers can spend at home before returning to work makes sense as part of a wider strategy to improve childcare. However, I'd agree with the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development that said it was sensible for the Government not to move too fast, but to evaluate what impact the change has on women's careers and job commitments before considering going further. It may provide mothers with the opportunity to spend more time with children early on but, worryingly, it may also cause them to drift away from the labour market.
I also have reservations about a proposal to consider extending paid maternity leave so it could be shared between mother and father.
Again, the implications need detailed work to ensure the burden doesn't again fall on the employer. Having both parents share parental leave sounds fine in principle but who is going to police the system? Employers should not be responsible for finding out how much time each parent is entitled to.
Of the hundreds of companies and organisations that we supply with people every day in the UK, the vast majority tell us they already work hard to consider requests for flexible working, particularly from parents and carers, and from employees not entitled to the statutory rights.
The Chancellor should move cautiously. Employers will themselves find a balance and, hopefully, requirement for further legislation will be unnecessary. The area where I believe the Chancellor's comments were more encouraging concerned the need to improve the skills of the UK workforce. For many years, employers have been saying our education and training system doesn't meet their needs; that the skills they need to boost their bottom line simply aren't coming out of schools, colleges and universities.
The commitments in his Pre-Budget Report - including a learning allowance of £10 per week for people out of work and on benefit - will build on recent progress.
Relationships with employers will continue to be strengthened to tackle the skills issue, and it is great news that employers look as if they'll be given much more say in the development and delivery of skills.
I think we are definitely moving in the right direction. Our skill levels are improving and in Wales the work of our learning and training organisations is beginning to pay dividends.
As for Acorn, we're ending 2004 with another enjoyable, very successful trading year under our belt, looking forward to 2005.
I'd like to wish Western Mail readers a Merry Christmas and a healthy and very successful New Year.
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