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The Policy Ask with Michael Houlihan: “The skills gap is very real, very big and threatens to hold the economy back”

The CEO of the employment charity Generation UK&I on social mobility, empathy and why we need an “aggressive” fossil fuel tax system.

By Spotlight

Michael Houlihan is the CEO at Generation UK and Ireland (UK&I), a charity founded by McKinsey, which helps employers find people with the skills they need for entry-level jobs. He joined Generation in 2018 to lead the launch and growth of programmes in the UK and Ireland, and previously was chief operating officer and director of the board at two tech start-ups called Reevoo and Quill. Formerly, he worked as a strategy consultant with the management consultancy OC&C. He holds an economics and mathematics degree, and a master’s degree in economics.

How do you start your working day?

I’m an early riser and like the relative calm of the world first thing, which is often enjoyed at the same time as taking care of my young daughter and dog. Once the working day starts, I set very clear goals for my day. I try to distil the three most important things I need to achieve which ensures I protect time for my biggest priorities even when my days get busy.

What has been your career high?

Building Generation UK&I from the ground up has been a real career highlight. From sitting down with a fairly blank piece of paper in 2018 and setting out a vision for what we could achieve, we have built out the organisation bit by bit.

This includes signing up our first employers which has now grown to a network of over 1,000 businesses, recruiting from our programmes across the UK and Ireland. Even more importantly, we have had to get really good, and be trusted, as an organisation engaging and supporting people in difficult situations, working with job centres and hundreds of community-oriented organisations.

At the end of 2022, we had the chance to come together as a team and reflect on everything we had created together at Generation UK&I over the past four years. This was the first time our team of 80-plus staff had been able to come together in person.

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We celebrated the huge milestone of helping 1,000 people into life-changing jobs. Doing this together in person was a big moment for the team and me. We’ve continued to grow since, and we’re now close to helping over 2,000 people change their lives for the better.

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What has been the most challenging moment of your career?

Before becoming the CEO of Generation UK&I, I spent ten years helping to build two different tech start-ups. Both companies did well, secured funding, won awards and ultimately were acquired by bigger companies. However, there have been quite a lot of ups and downs. We went through periods where we had to reduce the size of the team through redundancies, for example. Those periods were very hard from a personal perspective, even when necessary for the organisation.

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?

Enjoy the journey as much as the destination. My guess is that we only get one shot at our time on this planet, and it’s a real blessing, and magical in so many ways. While we should be ambitious, and being busy is no bad thing, it needs to be balanced with time to appreciate and savour the experience along the journey.

Which political figure inspires you?

I am a huge admirer of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, commonly and powerfully known as the Notorious RBG who very sadly passed away in 2020. It was amazing to see the waves of admiration, credit and personal anecdotes that were shared to celebrate her incredible life. She had a very deep sense of justice and committed her life and career to it, and found a way – with great patience and effectiveness – to engender real change that benefited millions of people.

When you then understand her situation and background, and the lengths she went to support herself and her family along her journey, it is truly amazing. Holding down multiple jobs while studying at law school, supporting a young family and caring for her relatives, all at once, testifies to her enormous motivation and grit, which is hugely admirable.

[See also: The age of greedflation]

What policy or fund is the UK government getting right?

The UK government’s embracement of the opportunity that “skills bootcamps” offer has been really encouraging to see. Skills bootcamps provide people with free and flexible opportunities to gain the skills needed to get more highly skilled and better-paid jobs. 

Something needed to be done. The skills gap is very real, and very big, and threatens to hold the economy back. By investing in new approaches to skilling, it’s a clear sign the government recognises the importance of bridging the gap between the skills demanded by the job market and the skills possessed by the workforce. While there is room for improvement in the policy design, particularly in terms of ensuring the programme facilitates real social mobility, the speed and efficiency with which the policy has been scaled up to the tune of £1.5bn is impressive.

The UK’s approach to skills bootcamps is also faster, more audacious and more innovative than that of any other European country we have seen. This sets the stage for skills bootcamps in the UK to be a mainstream option to address skills gaps, alongside higher education and vocational training.

And what policy should the UK government scrap?

The government needs to change the way it treats refugees. People who come to the UK seeking asylum often face, or are fleeing from a lot of very serious challenges. Some of the policies the UK government have introduced are inhumane, and exacerbate challenges people in very difficult situations have faced. The figures around net immigration highlight how a wider rethink of our approach is required, as our services are being stretched even thinner, but we can do that without compromising our values, empathy and humanity.

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to?

There has to be a new wave of legally binding commitments on the transition to net zero. The path to do so is complex and hugely multi-faceted, and needs to be supported by a range of government measures. Some important initiatives are planned, such as phasing out gas boilers or petrol and diesel cars, and I am looking forward to those becoming a reality.

However, there needs to be a wider set of policies and laws which create a clear pathway to reaching net zero. Over the next couple of years, we need to see some big announcements on the mobilisation of significant government funds to support existing and emerging technologies that can facilitate this path, as well as providing people with the educational opportunities to reskill for green jobs which is hugely important.

Other countries have already done this. It’s clear that there are huge amounts of private-sector investments that are sitting there waiting to be unleashed, alongside lots of innovation. However, the UK government has lagged for too long, and time is running out.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?

The UK could learn a great deal from the approach taken by Scandinavian countries in driving the widespread adoption of net zero initiatives. This includes the use of heat pumps and the generation of clean electricity. By looking at the strategies employed by these countries, the UK can identify effective methods of encouraging businesses and households to transition to more sustainable practices.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?

I would like to see a much more aggressive tax system to incentivise faster reductions in the use of fossil fuels, and would use the resulting funding to incentivise faster innovation and adoption of green technologies.

[See also: Towards a new, green economy]