Managers must change priorities
The best talent is made, not discovered. Managers must change priorities.
That is the unfortunate truth bubbling below the surface of the continuing skilled worker shortage.
American education—most traditional education models, for that matter—are all front-loaded. Schooling is all targeted to “traditional” students between the toddler stage and some point in their 20s. That means that you are theoretically at your most valuable, as a worker, immediately after you graduate from (whatever) school, and start applying your fresh knowledge.
You then progressively lose value, relevance, and cutting-edge novelty until you become obsolete and get replaced by a new, younger, more recently graduated worker—that is, unless your entire organization or industry fails to keep up with the learning curve, and gets annihilated by market and knowledge forces along the way.
Bear in mind as well, knowledge and experience aren’t always a package deal; so while young college graduates are ready to put their recently acquired degrees, ideas, and mishmash of skills to productive use, they are often marginalized for their lack of experience compared to more seasoned, reprogramed workers whose education isn’t as fresh, but use on-the-job background is superior.
Something is Missing
“One of the things we’ve measured over 23 years is, what are the hiring managers saying?” says Rainmaker Thinking’s founder Bruce Tulgan. “And an awful lot of what they’re saying, with increasing incidence, is that [Millennials] have the hard skills, but they lack the old-fashioned soft skills.”
There is more to this than stereotype and generational griping.
“Digital natives, given just how they think, learn, and communicate, they have a tremendous natural facility with learning new technologies or interfacing with computers. They have a great comfort with handhelds,” Tulgan says. “But I think there’s much more data to suggest that growing up knowing how to think, learn, and communicate attached to a super-computer, in fact, has made many of their soft skills weak.”
Tenured workers are experienced, but their education outdated, and comfort with new technology ambivalent; recent graduates are ripe with new thinking, skills, and education, but often can’t leverage that to make the most use of it; and employers, governmental bodies, society in general is left with some arbitrary combination of the two, hurting efficiency, productivity, and satisfaction. There is a clear need to change priorities.
Who is supposed to be doing well in this model?
The problem here is, front-loading education is the opposite of lifelong learning, and lifelong learning is the best way to get the maximum value from individual learners. The mistake is not one-sided; that means remedying this situation requires some problem-solving across the board.
Consider how people get hired, for starters.
The best and brightest of many fields flock to America’s innovation factory; as such, recognizing how the person fits a company’s needs, goals, and culture, may well trump how their skills fit the bill. When you are the hottest start-up in Silicon Valley, you have your pick of character. For the remainder of companies, this compounds an already acute shortage of skilled workers.
As much as employers might prefer to prioritize cultural fit over skills need, the talent pool’s size may tie the hands of managers.
“They can’t hire around the soft skill gap, because they have such a supply and demand imbalance when it comes to the hard skills. So I think you can try to build [culture hiring] into your attraction methods, build that into your selection process,” says Tulgan, “but it is just very hard to rule people out because there is such a supply and demand imbalance. There’s just so much demand for people with those technical skills.”
But even accounting for the long-term importance of cultural factors, and finding a way to attract the best new talent, can still leave organizations prone to fail another way.
The advance of technology, fluctuating expectations and behaviors of the (global) marketplace, and pace of scientific research and discovery all combine to make knowledge very vulnerable to irrelevance.
According to the estimates of Philippe Kutchen, professor and 30-year practitioner of software engineering, ideas in his field have a half-life of roughly five years; beyond that, their relevance (and value) declines significantly.
Five years is also a figure tossed out by experts in medicine—distressing, when you consider that is roughly the amount of time it takes to complete medical school.
What this means is that hiring culturally compatible workers whose education has been front-loaded leaves them vulnerable to an erosion of skill, knowledge, and value of another sort. Reassuringly, the flow of information has never been faster, and online learning platforms abound to bring the latest and best practices, thought leadership, and developmental considerations to anyone who signs up and logs on.
“A new academic infrastructure truly responsive to worldwide demand will not emerge instantaneously,” Professor Jay Halfond of Boston University extolls. “Nothing has changed. Yet.”
Breaking the Cycle
Not only is it critical to prioritize culture along with immediate skills needed to grow and maintain a company, it is increasingly necessary for leaders to invest in their employees through continuing education opportunities.
Taken together, these priority shifts—at the point of recruitment and hiring, and over the tenure of employees—can fight the ancient trend of front-loading education, and turn the skilled worker-shortage on its head.
The simplicity of these directives is misleading, because it runs counter to the norm in a profound way. Remember: spend the first 20 or so years of your life learning, then the rest of your life doing. Despite the proliferation of alternative models and opportunities, the front-loading model remains dominant.
The burden of student debt corresponds directly with front-loading education, based on the promise that paying now for access to learning will pay off later in superior job opportunities and general demand. And deeply indebted students can hardly head right back to school when they have full-time jobs they need to pay back their loans.
A New Partnership
The focus on continuing education has to come from both the employee, and the employer. Soft skills can be remediated by mentorship; hard skill, remediated through a new focus on lifelong learning models and opportunities. The rewards of such a partnership are mutual.
“Good management is synonymous with teaching, and good followership is synonymous with learning,” asserts Tulgan.
Accordingly, a good cultural fit puts everyone in the best place to both learn, and perform, over time—and support one another in doing so. A strong academic background may demonstrate an applicant’s general ability to learn, but it is up to employers to continue to feed their curiosity while they are part of the team. Taking ownership of this training component is empowering to both parties.
Curiosity itself may prove to be the most valuable asset in any worker, but only if employers learn to reward it with continuing education support. When curious workers are backed by forward-thinking organizations, lifelong learning stands a chance of displacing the front-loading model—and everyone benefits.