Two recent articles caught my attention and reminded me of when I was building my career in high-tech communications management. The first, by Lauren Weber, appeared in The Wall Street Journal and asked a question that once would have been considered ridiculous: “Just Whose Job Is It to Train Workers?” This question once would have been met with a blank stare. After all, if the company did not provide the training, how could they be sure that people would be trained accurately and with emphasis on the right things?
The second article, by Jessica Marie, appeared on LinkedIn and discussed “Micromanagers: Flushing Companies Down the Toilet, One Detail at a Time.” This one, of course, shows what happens when companies don’t consider management training to be important.
Today I’m going to talk about employee training.
Many Kinds of Training
There are many different kinds of employee training, of course. New hires may need to learn how to produce, market, and sell a product. They may need to know more about the chemistry, electronics, physics, or biology involved. Legal Seafoods trains its waitstaff for a solid week on fish and food safety, along with their Beverage Certification Program and Professional Bartender Training. Apple trains its retail hires for a week of offsite education.
Earlier in my marketing career, I was able to take company-sponsored courses in selling skills and public speaking among other valuable skills. In those days, companies considered employee training to be their job and did not look to the school system or the government to do it for them. Even less did they expect the employee to pay for his or her own training before even getting the chance to interview. Hiring was a much more competitive process with companies scrambling for the best and the brightest. They wanted people with the raw material that corporate trainers could shape into team members who would contribute to the organization for a long time.
Training was an investment and they took it seriously. Companies established training departments, set up classrooms and established curricula. They hired teachers and training managers who created schedules for customer training, employee training and sales training. The goal was to maximize the potential of every customer and each employee so that customers would buy more product and employees would be productive for many years. It all seemed pretty straightforward.
When Everything Changed
Then the economy tanked and everything changed.
Companies no longer had to compete for employees with good potential. Now they could pick and choose among hundreds of applicants for very few jobs. They could toss potential out the window as a hiring criterion and insist on a very specific skill set—taking lots of time to find just “the right candidate.”
Instead of viewing employee training as an investment in long-term productivity, they considered it a staff function. The next step was to eliminate training departments as unnecessary drains on the bottom line. Then those companies could sit back and wait for highly qualified, very experienced and completely trained candidates to come to their doors—and work for salaries significantly smaller than they had once been.
Sometimes that happened. When it did, they screened veterans, older workers and the long-term unemployed out of the pool regardless of qualifications and kept looking for the right candidate—aka the “Purple Squirrel.” More often, however, it did not
A Fine Whine
As the economy began to improve, the gap between what they wanted and the skills available became more apparent. Some manufacturers began to complain that schools weren’t turning out graduates with the precise qualifications needed. Instead of figuring out what they could do about it, they began to whine about a “skills gap.” One complaint was that schools aren’t providing the right training. A second approach was to demand more H-1B Visas so they could import skilled workers–for less money–instead of training local candidates. Economist Paul Krugman calls the skills gap a “zombie idea,” –one that “should have been killed by evidence but refuses to die.”
As Ms. Weber explains in @WSJ:
“Companies complain that they can’t find skilled hires, but they aren’t doing much to impart those skills, economists and workforce experts say. U.S. companies have been cutting money for training programs for decades, expecting schools and workers to pick up the slack. Economists say that reluctance to develop workers in-house has made it hard for workers to launch or sustain careers, resulting in a stalemate in the labor market: Companies won’t look at job candidates who lack a specific skill set, so openings go unfilled even as millions linger on the unemployment rolls.”
That’s a big impact and it’s really puzzling. Is this such a quandary that it takes big vision to get out of it? Cait Murphy got a pretty direct answer from Carey Smith, head of Big Ass Fans (his title is Chief Big Ass) in her Inc. Magazine article “Is There Really a Skills Gap?”
“Rather than complaining about the fact that someone somewhere didn’t do their job, businesses ought to get off their duff, get involved, and make a difference.”
That used to be the way American business operated before companies started avoiding risk and expecting things to be handed to them on a silver platter.
Yes, it will cost money. Yes, it will take time. Yes, it requires a commitment. Yes, there is some risk that a trained employee will be poached by another company. But taking charge of training means you get employees with the skills you need when you need them. Plus, it’s one way to slay the zombie skills gap and make the economy stronger.
Tomorrow: Management Training—The Cost of Doing Nothing