Peter Capelli’s recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “Why Companies Aren’t Getting the Employees They Need,” notes a complaint that is both concerning and paradoxical. Cappelli opens saying, “Even with unemployment hovering around 9%, companies are grousing that they can't find skilled workers, and filling a job can take months of hunting.” He cites data from Manpower showing that 52% of US companies report difficulty filling jobs, 47% of employers blame prospects lack of “hard” job skills or technical skills, 35% blame lack of experience and with all that only 28% are increasing staff training. He goes on to say, “And make no mistake: There are plenty of people out there who could step into jobs with just a bit of training—even recent graduates who don't have much job experience.”
The Skilled Worker Issue & Knowledge Transfer
The problem as it is presented is clear: Employers need workers and have been able to set a high bar for some time. Now that more jobs are opening and a spate of boomer retirement is reducing the available skilled workforce, the candidate pool is not keeping up. Employers are going to have to do something to utilize the talent that is available rather than the talent they wish was available.
Microsoft’s Solution to Skilled Worker Shortages in the 1990’s
This issue brings me back to the early nineties at Microsoft when the software industry was so young that there was virtually no possibility of hiring “experienced” candidates. Capelli points out that during that time “only about 10% of the people in IT jobs during the Silicon Valley tech boom … even had IT-related degrees.” Microsoft went after “talent hires” who were smart and capable of learning—and leading quickly—as opposed to packing a dense resume. The interview process looked more at the future than the past. U.S. talent shortage facts cited by Peter Cappelli in an Oct. 24th Wall Street Journal article.
People were hired into Microsoft and told that they’d have to learn on the job—and fast! During those years I worked there as a team manager and we developed a knowledge transfer program called Peer Mentoring to help get people up to speed. Little money was spent on formal training because the bulk of every job had to be learned from co-workers. We reasoned that if we could make our best employees better able to teach on the job, they would do a better job of helping all those smart, inexperienced new hires get up to speed. We also gave the new hires a lot of advice and tools to help them drive their own onboarding as much as possible. They had at least as much to gain by quickly developing their skills so we put them in the driver’s seat as much as possible.
Recent Improvements in Knowledge Transfer Offer Simple Solutions
Since the early nineties we’ve become much more sophisticated in the knowledge transfer process. We can define very clearly what needs to be learned, how new hires can measure if they have learned enough to do the work, and we can help point these current-day “apprentices” to the most useful resources to help them gain independence. If more employers embraced these simple steps, they could look at a wider candidate pool, fill the jobs faster, and then ramp up their new employees to productivity in record time. At my company alone, we have proven the speed and effectiveness of knowledge transfer solutions to address talent shortages within a wide variety of industries and workforces time and again.
As Cappelli puts it “… there's one on-the-job education strategy that doesn't cost companies a dime: Organize work so that employees are given projects that help them learn new skills. For example, a marketing manager may not know how to compute the return on marketing programs but might learn that skill while working on a team project with colleagues from the finance department. Pursuing options like these vastly expands the supply of talent that employers can tap, making it both cheaper and easier to fill jobs.”
He’s describing one form of knowledge transfer. Businesses can go even one better by using the recent advancements in knowledge transfer to identify which skills are needed in a position not only now but also 2 to 3 years from now—and begin to transfer those skills ahead of time to reduce their workforce risk and future hiring costs.
SUMMARY: If your company is facing a skilled worker shortage, on-the-job knowledge transfer is the quickest, most cost effective solution to enable employers to hire from the available talent pool and render those workers skilled and productive. Employees or new hires that might be able to do the job are quickly turned into employees that measurably can do the job.