Skill Gaps – Do the Germans Have a Fix, or Do We?

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skillDid you know that nationwide we have over 4 million unfilled job openings but 10 million people are unemployed; this is according to U.S. Labor Department statistics.  On the weekend edition of NPR last week, they ran a story “What Germans Know that Could Help Bridge U.S. Workers’ Skill Gap” which notes that this “phenomenon is puzzling to some European companies that have expanded into the U.S. and are used to a more skilled workforce”.  “It’s pretty much that middle gap” explains Martina Stellmaszek, a representative from the German American Chamber of Commerce in Atlanta.  She explains that they have no problem finding qualified engineers on one end of the spectrum or really low-qualified workers on the other end.  It is that middle segment that is the problem and Germany may have the fix.

The NPR report goes on to describe a three-year apprenticeship program that every trade worker in Germany must undergo before being certified in a skilled job.  Certificates are awarded by the Chamber of Commerce and they set the standards for what is taught in the schools. This program is elaborate and quite successful as it provides employers with certified, experienced workers the day they walk in the door.   It has also captured the attention of the Obama administration, so much so that Joe Biden has been assigned the task of reviewing America’s jobs program.   This is being taken so seriously that new regulations will be announced later this week requiring for-profit and vocational colleges to demonstrate that they are properly preparing students for careers after graduation or potentially be excluded from federal student aid programs.

So by now you are asking yourself, “what does this have to do with our profession?’’ We don’t hire trade workers.  We hire mostly college graduates.  I agree. Yet, the issue of finding the right skilled workers, particularly in our discipline, remains the same and our education system is not necessarily helping.  I’ve met and taught some of the kids coming out of the Supply Chain programs from some of the best universities in the country and while they are smart, they are not equipped to hit the ground running, day one.  Perhaps we need to force the same accountability on our colleges and universities as we do on our vocational schools.  Maybe the idea of an apprentice program for Supply Chain / Sourcing or any shared service function (e.g. Finance, IT, Human Resources) could have some real benefit. Or instead of waiting for our educational system to catch on or up (by the way, this issue has been discussed for years), you can do something about it within your own organization. What we can learn from the Germans is the value of learning and experience on-the-job as opposed to in the classroom. Having delivered training in Germany to a German audience, I appreciate their relentless focus on application.  Here are a few suggestions:

Internships – Start by grabbing the kids early, perhaps after their sophomore year in college.  Establish a program that replicates an apprenticeship where they work side by side an experienced leader.  Give them meaningful work – not the stuff that no one else wants to do.  Most importantly, pay them. Even if it is only minimum wage, paying an intern does give them a sense of worth and commitment. Make it a multi-year program where they work for two to three summers before they are offered a job.  The benefit to both you the employer and the intern is that you get to know there capabilities, work ethic, etc., and they get to learn your culture, processes, expectations, etc.  To be successful this program must be structured and staffed or you will not achieve the benefits.

Rotational or Internal Apprentice program – As you are bringing on new employees, either create a one to two year structured rotation program that allows them to learn the business hands-on or team them up with an experienced leader that they can learn from for at least the first year (this needs to be a structured program as well).  The benefit to both you, the employer, and the employee is that they have a structured learning program that is targeted to add value to your organization.  In addition, these types of programs have proven to be differentiators in the market place when you are recruiting.

Experiential Training – Develop a training program (either internally or with an experienced consultant – I know one, by the way 🙂 ) that focuses on learning and application of new skills in the classroom but more importantly outside the classroom.  This would focus on on-the-job assignments to ensure that the learning sticks. This approach is not only powerful for new employees but also for current employees where you are trying to upgrade their skills.  The return on investment is ten-fold.

 Another powerful learning tool is to establish Communities of Practice.  But, ooops I am beyond my word limit so that will have to wait for a future blog . . . . .

In conclusion, there continues to be a shortage of the right skills within our profession.  We can either wait for others to fix our problem (the education system) or we can do it ourselves by replicating some of the best practices we have seen from our friends in Germany!

Join in the conversation and let us know what you think  . . . . . . . 

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Anne Kohler
Anne has been leading consulting and financial management organizations for over 25 years. She has extensive expertise in Strategic Sourcing, change management, contracting & contract management (both the buy side and sell side) organizational design and supply chain management. Anne has a passion for collaborating and educating her clients while helping them to uncover hidden value in their organizations. In addition, Anne has been named by Supply & Demand Chain Executive as a “Top 100 Provider Pro to Know” every year since 2007 and a 2013 Top Female Supply Chain executive.
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