Economists and researchers like to argue about whether there’s any evidence for a skills gap, but as a recent article in Inc. points out, if you cannot find qualified candidates for your business, it doesn’t matter what the rest of the country is doing. You have a skills gap.
Those who agree that there is a skills gap love to argue about whose fault it is. The schools aren’t preparing students for today’s jobs. The government isn’t supporting skills development. Millennials are hard to train. Businesses aren’t investing in training programs.
But does any of this discussion change the fact that you need someone who can contribute to your bottom line today? No. And it really doesn’t matter who’s to blame. If you’re a business owner or manager facing a skills gap, you’re in the best position to fix it. And it’s your job to do so.
Getting someone else to train your future employees is like pushing on a string.
Consider the set of qualifications you’re looking for. Your business requires a unique combination of skills. You have a unique culture and a set of expectations for your employees that no other business has.
General services, like government programs, community colleges, and universities cannot address your unique set of needs. They’re good at teaching general skills like trouble-shooting, programming concepts, and communication. But they cannot keep up with the explosion of specialized skills that today’s jobs demand.
And honestly, academia doesn’t need to prove that its students can get jobs in order to get customers. Some kind of post-secondary school diploma has become such a basic requirement for employment that universities and community colleges fill their classrooms without ever having to make a solid connection between the education they offer and the jobs their students get.
Waiting for the perfect resume doesn’t fix the problem.
Many companies wait around for the perfect candidate who brings a specific laundry list of skills. But that means it’s taking longer to find the right people. The Wall Street Journal reports that job openings are going unfilled for a record average of 27.3 days, the most since 2000.
While you wait for the golden resume, other employees have to fill in the gap, leading to burnout, slower company growth and worse performance. And when you find that just-right candidate, you may end up paying more than you wanted to. People with skills that are in demand have leverage to negotiate a better salary.
So if you want real change, if you want those perfectly qualified employees, you have the best chance at getting them if you grow them yourself. And here’s the thing. It’s not as hard as you think.
Hire for learning ability, not specific skills.
Even if you’re lucky enough to find a candidate who exactly matches your requirements, remember that today’s most sought-after skills will be obsolete before you know it. And you’ll be back to looking for that perfect hire.
James Bessen, economist at Boston University School of Law writes in a Harvard Business Review article, “Employers using new technologies need to base hiring decisions not just on education, but also on the non-cognitive skills that allow some people to excel at learning on the job.”
Alex Weinstein of Wetpaint describe his company’s success with hiring good learners:
“Most of the developers we hired had no or little experience in [Ruby on] Rails. We hired folks whose experience has shown that they can pick up new technologies quickly. So they picked up Rails quickly; and then when we needed to do Hadoop, they picked that up too. And responsive design. And machine learning. I have little doubt that we’ll do great with the fancy new technology X that surfaces next year and revolutionizes the industry – because high velocity of learning is a core competency of the team.”
It’s easier (and cheaper) than you think.
You may not have the time or resources for a traditional instructor-led course or video training. But humans are great at learning from each other as we work together, so consider some “on the job” training options that are cost effective and relatively easy to set up.
Apprenticeships provide focused training for your industry.
Many companies who invest in employee training have started apprenticeships. Some of these involve partnerships with local colleges or industry associations. Apprenticeships work well if you have several companies that need similar skills. You can share the cost and administrative duties.
Some apprenticeships have grown complex and costly, but they don’t have to be. The U.S. Department of Labor offers toolkits and contact information for apprenticeship programs in each state.
Learn more about the advantages of apprenticeships here.
Internships develop your talent pipeline for new employees.
Another option is to run an internship program for students. Internships help you develop people with the right skills for entry-level positions.
Interns do basic tasks while learning higher-level skills. They start building relationships within your company and learn about your culture. If you take the time to structure their training and give them tasks that help them learn from other employees, you’ll make the best use of their time. Having interns that only make good coffee won’t help you in the long run.
When the internships are over, you have a selection of very qualified candidates for your entry positions, and they’ve already developed loyalty and personal connections with your company.
Structured on-the-job training builds a culture of learning for today and tomorrow.
If neither internships nor apprenticeships work for you, turn to good old-fashioned on-the-job training – with one twist. Rather than hiring good learners and tossing them in with the sharks, use Structured On-the-Job Training (SOJT).
Companies who use SOJT get more for their training dollar than with e-learning-only or classroom-only approaches. SOJT also helps employees master skills faster and commit fewer mistakes than unstructured learning.
The U.S. Navy, which doesn’t have the option of hiring pre-trained candidates, has developed an extensive SOJT program which all personnel follow to prepare for their next jobs and train others for their current jobs.
Learn more about the Navy’s program here.
With SOJT, you identify skills you want employees to have and then give them the responsibility to learn those skills. You connect them with people or resources who can help them learn and give them tasks that help them focus on those skills. They learn with their colleagues as they complete work tasks. Learning becomes part of the job, not a separate activity.
Training also becomes everyone’s responsibility. You reward experienced people for helping others learn. You encourage employees to learn from outside sources and bring the knowledge in-house.
In the end, you have a learning culture, which will give you a competitive advantage against those companies who are still bidding for pre-trained candidates in the labor market.
Plus, you get all the benefits that come with a good training program: lower turnover, higher employee engagement, more revenue, and faster innovation.
Reconsider why you’re not training more today.
I don’t have the money.
You may feel that you don’t have the budget for a big training program. So start small. Take on one intern or set up on-the-job training for a small set of crucial skills and build from there.
It’s not my job.
Perhaps you manage a team within a larger company, and you feel it’s corporate’s responsibility to provide training. Maybe so, but you can wait on them or you can make a difference in your team now.
Even if HQ did offer classes, you’d still need to help your employees recall and apply their knowledge on the job. And you’d need to train for your team’s unique needs. Why not just make constant learning and teaching part of what you do every day?
I’ll be training my competition.
You may be thinking that as soon as you train people, they’ll leave the company. But is that really the case? When you train someone on the job, they do better work while you have them, they build stronger bonds with their colleagues, and if they have the chance to learn and grow with your company, they’ll stay longer.
In fact, the Wall Street Journal cites employee development as one of the key tactics for retention. And according to Bersin by Deloitte,”research shows that companies with high performing learning environments rank in the top for employee engagement.”
Plus, people leave for tons of reasons besides better pay. And turnover is a fact of life. But if you’ve developed a strong training program for new employees and a culture of learning, having to fill that vacancy won’t be nearly so daunting or expensive as it is now.
Stop talking and start training.
It’s time to stop worrying about whether we have a national skills deficit or who’s to blame for it. If you have a skills gap on your team, you won’t find anyone better qualified to fix it than yourself. And even if you don’t, you should probably think about whether you want to buy skills for the short term or build a team that adapts over the long term.
Learn more about Pract.us for structured on-the-job training programs.