I recently participated in the CBI’s Great Business Debate with John Cridland, director general of the CBI, and Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, following the publication of the CBI report A Better off Britain.
The report, to which Veolia contributed through the steering group, set out measures to help boost living standards for low-income working families and longer-term measures designed to raise pay sustainably.
This whole issue has, of course, come into sharper focus following chancellor George Osborne’s Budget announcement that working people aged 25 and over will be entitled to a national living wage of £7.20 an hour from next year, rising to £9 by 2020. This will replace the old minimum wage.
Within the municipal waste management sector, this clearly changes the rules of the game because contracts have not been tendered on this basis before. We will have to discuss with councils how the gap will be bridged as the budget announcement will mean a de facto rise in the cost of municipal collection and street cleansing contracts.
Looking beyond the national living wage itself, the wider issue is how businesses can become credible social sustainability leaders by upskilling employees so they can increase their value to the business and earn more. By investing in the UK, we can create jobs and a more diverse workforce and by giving back to communities we can forge relationships on a local level.
Making more of the talent we have helps people to achieve their potential, while vocational routes to skills can ensure that businesses can access the capabilities they need. ‘Growing your own’ is now a board-level priority for us and reflects the need for upskilling within the economy.
The CBI report agrees that developing people is key to improving living standards because it offers the opportunity for them to show what they can do. From my point of view, the ‘value add’ in all jobs comes when you delegate and a member of your team looks to increase the scope of their work, tries to go the extra mile or is willing to accept more responsibility.
Today, Veolia employs 14,000 people in UK resource management, and our objective is that every one of them is qualified to NVQ Level 2 or qualified in Maths or English. As a minimum, we offer staff an additional half-day each year for leadership training development on top of existing training.
Young people need to have a good start to their working life and apprenticeships can provide the essential skills we need. To support this, we have introduced an annual target of 300 apprentices on Veolia development programmes, and in the UK we currently have nearly 500 of them, each with a mentor who is responsible for their career development.
The number of jobs requiring no formal qualification has nearly halved during the past decade. Our target is to have 10% of our operative recruitment coming from people marginalised from mainstream employment, including young people not in education or training, former military, long-term unemployed, homeless and ex-offenders.
I also believe in giving everyone a chance and this includes working with ex-offenders which has a real impact on the reoffending rate. A scheme we are involved in for 65 former prisoners has proved to be one of the most successful in the UK, and demonstrated that it was possible to reduce the national re- offending rate from 60% to 7%.
Many ex-armed service personnel have joined our ranks over the years, and they provide teams of engineers for our energy recovery facilities and support our environmental and energy services across bases in Scotland, Aldershot, Lisburn, Peterborough and Salisbury Plain.
Investment is one area where you can see a correlation between a planned improvement in living standards and the recovery as a result of job creation. Veolia’s planned £1bn investment between 2012-18 will create thousands of permanent and construction jobs.
According to the CBI report, only around half of people believe that business makes a contribution to society. This is rather sad but also an opportunity to make a real impact. It means that if we are going to go above 50% we need to rely on deeds, not words.
Setting out the facts and combating the myths about what business does and the contribution it makes is the only way to change peoples’ perceptions and recognise the social value of companies. This will contribute to improved living standards, and we are determined to play our part in this change.
Estelle Brachlianoff is senior executive vice-president UK and Ireland at Veolia