Q&A with Kevin Ellis, Chair and Senior Partner at PwC UK

Lynn Barlow
Assistant Vice-Chancellor, Creative and Cultural Industries Engagement | UWE
30th October 2018

UWE, in partnership with Business West, runs an annual lecture series that brings top business leaders to Bristol. We caught up with Kevin Ellis, Chair and Senior Partner at PwC UK, before he gave his address:

PwC are a huge professional services company. For people who don’t know what that is can you tell me a little bit about what PwC does?

Effectively we provide advice, across the ambit of audit, consulting, tax and transactions or deals.

We’ve got 22,000 people in the UK. Every year we recruit something like 1,500 graduates. This year we recruited around 600 school leavers. And, in addition to that, we recruit 2,000 qualified or senior people.

Probably every year 4,000 people leave us, however, so we’re a massive training ground for UK Plc. My alumni – you’ll probably find them in most organisations in the public sector, private sector and third sector in some form or another.

That’s why we have quite a big role to play in society beyond the actual work that we do, in terms of the contribution we make to the training and development of the people in this economy.

You’re particularly concerned with the role of big business in society and you’ve got some interesting thoughts on how you might do that better.

I think you’re right. You can blame business for everything. You can. But you need a strong economy because without a strong economy there are no jobs, there is no aspiration for people to improve and develop, and there’s no taxes to pay for society’s wider costs and structures: defence, education and social security.

So, you do need a strong economy and a strong economy comes from business. I think we’re at a really important moment. There is no doubt in my mind that robotics, AI and blockchain will wipe out something like 20 percent of the jobs that exist today.

On the positive side, studies I’ve seen and the studies we’ve contributed to say that of the 7million jobs that will be wiped out in this country by AI, blockchain and robotics, 7.2million are likely to be created alongside that.

I can already see that. In our business, we’ve got a drones team, an AI team, I’ve got 200 people doing cyberdefence and 1000 across Europe doing it as well. Those jobs didn’t exist 5 years ago. So, you can already see the new society creating jobs for those that have been eroded.

This isn’t about job protection, it’s about creating the skills and retraining and reskilling society. Nobody else is going to do that other than business.

Business isn’t going to do it for societal reasons, it’s going to do it for an economic one, because otherwise business isn’t going to have any employees who are rightly trained for what they want to do.

I completely understand what you’re saying, but how do you translate that to somebody who has no knowledge or experience of business and just thinks big business is an evil ‘over there’ that does no social good and has no social value?

I think at the moment business gets associated with revenue and profit. They probably don’t get associated with the tax that they pay, because without tax there is no public sector. I think that should rise up the storyboard, in addition to retraining and social mobility.

We actually collect the data of everyone we recruit, so I know that of the people we recruited from universities and schools last year, 73 percent were state educated, 10 percent were from free school meals families and 14 percent on income support, with 39 percent were first time graduates in their families.

Professional services, where I come from, is a massive social mobility escalator, but a lot of people think it’s just people looking after themselves and giving jobs to their children. That is so far from the truth. People in my world come from very varied backgrounds.

We know we’ve got a massive need for more technology talent. Yesterday I was in Birmingham where we launched one of our 5 technology apprenticeships at 5 universities where people are paid a salary of £27,000 a year to get a university education whilst working for us as an apprentice, so that we’ve got technology trained people.

In addition to that I know that the gender challenge in technology is enormous in this country. 7 percent of primary school girls want to do technology. 15 percent of STEM university students are female. If you just recruit from the street a) you won’t find the talent, b) you can’t train the talent and c) your talent won’t be diverse. I need a diverse workforce, so our technology degrees are 30 percent female – we’ve actually managed it to that point in order to get the talent into the organisation, but the gender diversity as well.

We’re in an innovative world and innovation increases with diversity and reduces with sameness, so it’s really important we have that diversity opportunity as well as talent in our organisation.

What do our students need to do to be your star employees of the future?

I think you’ve got to be agile.

I go on the milkround every year to my old university – I went to the University of Nottingham – and when I talk to the students there I get quite an interesting insight into what people are concerned about.

At the moment, their major fear is how do I get a job for life. Students have got all this debt and think they have got to work until they’re 70, so they’re trying to find a job that will see them through.

There is no job.

What you’ve got to do is make sure you’re working in an organisation that makes technology available to you like a second language and you yourself show the interest to be involved with that technology, so that you’re relevant 5-10 years from now. Because the idea of having any job for life, I think, to today’s graduates is an anathema. It won’t be the case.

I’ve been in this organisation for 34 years, I’ve done loads of different jobs. I’ve been lucky enough to move around, but I think it’s about effectively ensuring you have the agility to move around.

That brings you back to business because you want business there to retrain, reskill and give opportunities to people, so that the people in the business both benefit from the jobs they’re doing by the money they’re earning and the skills they’re acquiring to ensure they’re relevant 5-10 years from now.

Business won’t do that for a societal reason, business will do it for an economic one because if we don’t we’re not relevant and we’ll be replaced or disrupted by all the other businesses out there who are effectively looking to eat our lunch.

This series of free public lectures brings top level business leaders to Bristol. You can discuss these events on Twitter using the hashtag #BristolLectures and view further content from Kevin Ellis' lecture here. For more information please contact events@uwe.ac.uk.

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