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

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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Supply Chain Management – A Hot NEW Discipline?

As we are working “in the weeds”, every day, we often lose sight of how critical our function is.  We, at The Mpower Group,  do a lot of Strategic Sourcing and Supply Chain Management training as one of our service offerings because WE KNOW the value of a strong Supply Chain. I guess it has just taken the rest of the world a little time to catch up . . . . . .

There was an article in the Wall Street Journal last week “Hot New MBA:  Supply-Chain Management”  which describes the increasing demand of employers to hire people with supply-chain expertise.  For many, many businesses, their supply chain can be the difference between success or failure.  So having the right, skilled resources in place is a critical success factor.   But let’s be real here . . . this is not NEW, but it is clearly a move in the right direction.

I do have a few words of caution for employers  . . . . . .  as you know, a college degree in any discipline is helpful BUT it is not a silver bullet.  To be a strong supply chain professional there are skills beyond “Supply Chain” which are important.  It is those strategic competencies like problem solving, change management, communication, collaboration, business acumen, etc.  that are true differentiators when hiring any professional.  These are also the skills that are often missing in the Supply Chain Management curricula offered today.  I have written about this quite a bit because I am a strong proponent of integrating those critical strategic competencies into the functional (supply-chain) competencies – see Could Supply Chain Skills Return America to Prosperity?.  So, I would advise employers to target graduates from programs that are integrating those skills or use professional training firms to provide those skills.

Since most companies cannot or should not replace their entire staff with recent grads, investing in professional supply chain training is a great investment.  But be sure to select a training firm that does two things:

  1.  Integrates strategic competencies with the functional,  supply chain skills
  2. Requires application of the new skills to ensure that the learning sticks AND is applied

If these two points sound intuitive, they are BUT they are seldom followed.  As with everything else, companies spend millions of dollars in implementing solutions but very little in ensuring that those solutions are adopted by employees – AND ADOPTION is where you actually get a return on your investment.  Think about all the training you have attended and reflect on what, if any, you actually applied when you returned to work – probably very little.  By the way, the same can be said for hiring talented, supply-chain grads.  If you do not provide them opportunities to apply what they learned in school you will not benefit, as an employer, from their skill set.   In addition, those supply chain skills will not be sustained if they are not used.

The good news is that the rest of the world is starting to recognize what we already know – supply-chain management is an important function and requires a unique set of skills to be successful.  Universities are gearing up to meet the demands of employers that recognize the value of supply-chain management.   As supply chain professionals we need to insist that our employers provide us with the training we need to round out our skill set and also provide us the opportunity to utilize those skills.  I think supply-chain can be an exciting and rewarding career. I am encouraged to see that others are recognizing that as well.

Don’t forget The Mpower Group when you are thinking about investing in your employees . . . . we are the best!

Please join in the conversation . . . . . . .

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Education vs Reality

I wanted to build upon Anne’s post last week regarding human development and the importance of a sound education system. I found her post right on point, especially because I just finished reading Stop Stealing Dreams (what is school for) by Seth Godin (you can download it for free here).

I am most familiar with Seth from his books and blogs on marketing. However, this work was slightly different. In Stop Stealing Dreams, Seth talks about America’s education system and how it is completely outdated. He states that we are not educating people to function in the new economy but for the manufacturing-focused economy of the past.

I found this interesting, especially because I can relate. Commonly in my adult life I have felt like I wasn’t educated or trained to handle the tasks that professionals face on a daily basis. These are things that were overlooked in my K-12 education. I don’t once remember a teacher saying, “Here is how to manage a project, work in a team, or handle a difficult personality.” Perhaps I was sick that day. College helped some, but it didn’t prepare me for what I faced outside of the Ivory Tower.

I remember my first job out of school was working as part of a four-person production team. We created hardbound visitor guides that were placed in hotel rooms. Revenue was based on ad sales.  At one point our team was producing 16 books a year. Did my education prepare me for the pressures of working with three other people with personalities different from my own? Was I prepared for the stressors of working under extreme deadlines? Did I feel comfortable reaching out to customers regarding their ads? The answer to all of these questions was a resounding no, but I had no choice but to figure it out. After a lot of trial, error, and learning through experience, I found the answers to these questions. I realized that I had left school without the key skills needed (communication, leadership, teamwork) to succeed.

We keep talking about how the strategic skills are what really matter, skills like communication, leadership, and teamwork. These are the skills that are needed in this new economy. Very few of us head to a plant and put widgets together. Which, according to Seth, the old educational system was designed to teach us. We are now constantly connected, thrown together into different situations, and are expected to make things happen. Most of these situations don’t have a rule book. There are no rules. They are unique to the transformative economy we find ourselves in. We either sink or swim. The only skills that are going to save us are those strategic skills. But how do we get these new skills if our educational system is focused on us sitting in lectures and completing assignments home alone. Isn’t it better to work in a group and combine the collective knowledge of the team towards a problem?

Developing these skills is now falling to companies and individuals. Organizations are struggling to find talented individuals to fill their teams, and employees are struggling to find their place. Perhaps it is time to look at the beginning instead of the end.

I lucked out as my love of learning and excellent mentors have helped me over these hurdles. However, life is a marathon not a sprint. There is plenty I still need to learn. I just need to stay flexible and push myself to keep growing.

Have you faced these same issues in your professional life? If so, how did you grow professionally?

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Making America More Competitive through our People

The theme for this month’s issue of Harvard Business Review is “Reinventing America – Why the World needs the U.S. to Bounce Back”.  There is one article in particular which highlights the need for the U.S. to become more competitive.  Here Michael E. Porter (ever hear of Porter’s Five Forces Model?) and Jan W. Rivkin discuss the need for America to repair some “cracks in the foundation” which from a macro perspective include:

  • Sound monetary and fiscal policies (such as manageable government debt levels);
  • Strong human development (good health care and strong K-12 education systems) and
  • Effective political institutions (rule of law and effective law-making bodies)

The area that I found most critical is human development, particularly the lack of focus on our education systems and the training / development of our employees.   There is a sister article in HBR entitled “A Jobs Compact for America’s Future” which really hones in on the human capital side of America’s challenges. In this article, author Thomas A. Kochan states “Without a well-trained, well-paid workforce the United States cannot compete with other nations effectively…”  He observes that “Corporate leaders frequently say that people are their most important asset.  Evidence suggests that many of them don’t believe a word of that claim.”   Kochan also points out that not all U.S. firms have fallen behind the rest of the world.  “Every industry includes firms that compete on innovation, product development and service quality.  These companies invest heavily in human and social capital. In the HR literature, the approach is called a high-road strategy, accompanied by high-performance or knowledge-based work systems. The specific practices vary across industries, but there are some generic features:

  • selection of employees with technical, problem-solving, and collaborative skills;
  • significant investment in training and de­velopment;
  • commitment to building trust and relying on employees to solve problems, coordinate operations, and drive innovation;
  • compensation systems that align the firm’s and the employees’ interests;…“

Two decades’ worth of research on high-road companies has documented their ability to achieve world-class productivity and service quality.  If we define U.S. competitiveness as the capacity to be attractive to businesses and to simultaneously create a more widely prosperous society, then high-road strategies become critical.”

Mr. Kochan is not alone in his thinking or his research.  There have been numerous articles written about how professionals (even those with advanced degrees) are leaving school with a lack of “soft skills” (we call them strategic competencies), which are the very skills (problem-solving, collaboration, communication) that are required for America to be competitive.  MBA and Masters programs (particularly in Supply Chain) are listening to the complaints from corporate America and are adjusting their curricula accordingly.  But many companies have not gotten the message and continue to cut training and development budgets entirely OR focus merely on technical training thereby cutting out all “soft skills” training.  Those “soft skills” or strategic competencies are the backbone of high performance work systems (“HPWS”).  HPWSs have been around for decades but seem to have gone through a resurgence as America scrambles for answers to our lack of global competitiveness.

If you think about it, the answer really isn’t all that hard.  America needs to put its money where its mouth is and make the American workforce an asset for our country.  Like any other asset it requires investment:

  • strengthening early childhood education
  • access to affordable post high school education
  • university curricula that REQUIRE more emphasis on strategic competencies
  • a significant investment in training and development within companies

If we can do all this, maybe America can be a global competitor once again.

Please join in the conversation.  We welcome your comments  . . . . . . . . .

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