• November 2011

Alice Waagen Helps Us Build a Better Future Workforce

By Alice Waagen, PhD
President and Founder
Workforce Learning

While the press and politicians continuously rant about job creation and unemployment, an insidious situation exists that is a real threat to the success of the entrepreneurial business: The difficulty in filling open positions that require skilled talent.

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 3.1 million job openings on the last business day of August 2011.

Although the number of job openings remained below the 4.4 million openings when the recession began in December 2007, the level in August was 944,000 higher than in July 2009 (the most recent trough). The number of job openings is up 26 percent since the end of the recession in June 2009.

This data mirrors what I hear from my search firm and recruiting colleagues.

Indeed, they are finding that filling skilled, technical positions is difficult these days despite the unemployment figures.

Analysts have attributed a number of causes to this mismatch, but the one I personally have seen in my scan of business organizations is the slow and steady erosion of investment in employee development.

I remember well a situation I experienced a few years back. I was asked to develop and deliver a full-scale management-skills training program for branch managers at a large, retail banking organization.

A Perfect Storm of Management

My needs analysis showed that none of the managers had any formal instruction in directing the work of others. These branch managers had what I call the Perfect Storm of Management—managing work that was critical to the success of the business and that was complex and potentially volatile.

The work was complex because it required not only financial and analytical skills, but also high degrees of customer service.

It was also volatile because a mistake or error could require hours, if not days, to rectify. In addition, the people doing this work were often individuals for whom English was a second language.

Now, top it off with high turnover and difficulty retaining top talent in these positions. I was so excited to help these beleaguered souls deal with the challenges they faced in managing such a critical part of the business.

Imagine my chagrin when two weeks into the training, I was told that the funds for training were being diverted to the IT budget to pay for systems upgrades, and all management development was put on indefinite hold.

That retail bank is no longer in business today, having been gobbled up by one of the bigger fish in the banking pond. But their story continues to live for me as a great example of what not to do if you are faced with vacant positions that you can’t fill.

If you can’t buy talent off the street because it simply is not there, you have to grow it yourself.

Here’s how:

  • Analyze your work and create an inventory of critical technical skill-sets, experience domains, and knowledge areas. How are these knowledge sets acquired? Are they formal certification program like Project Management Certification or any of the Microsoft Alphabet-Soup certifications? If so, create a database of who has them internally and who desires them, and set up a calendar and budget to grow your internal supply.
  • If the knowledge and experience needed is gained not from formal training but from experience, look for ways to create formal cross-training experiences. Job rotation, temporary job assignments, and job shadowing are all good ways to gain on-the-job experience. Also, promote and recognize experience gained through off-work volunteer activities. One colleague of mine gained valuable fundraising experience by volunteering for a health-based charity in her off-work time. This experience translated right back to her professional aspirations to move into business development in her professional life.
  • Look to develop partnering relationships with local community colleges or other local education intuitions. If you need continuous formal training in specific skill-sets, can you contract for them to develop and deliver the needed training?

The Bottom Line

Not only do these strategies help you to be proactive about building your critical skills supply, they also send a a positive message loud and clear to your employees that you value their contributions and wish to retain their value to your organization by investing in developing their skills.

I truly believe that the businesses that will ride out this economic mess and thrive are those who invest in their staff development and retention. When the markets begin to recover and business opportunities once again flourish, these savvy business managers will not be the ones with the vacant positions. They will be the ones out there gobbling up the competition by readily deploying a well-trained and capable employee base.


About Alice Waagen

Alice Waagen, Ph.D., is president and founder of Workforce Learning LLC, a leadership development company she founded in 1997. In the past three years alone, more than 125 leaders from 24 organizations have graduated from Waagen’s unique leadership-development workshop series. Learn more about Waagen’s work at www.workforcelearning.com.

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