Ask the Headhunter: America’s training gap is killing our competitive edge

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If a company wants the skills and talents it needs to be unique, it had better take responsibility for creating them.

Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979 and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community over the past decade.

In this special Making Sense edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards, or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.


Question: I am responding to your question asking whether or not we, your readers, agree with employers that there is a “skills gap.” I am not sure I can really answer your question, though I will tell you that I have my doubts that there is a skills gap.

I think what there may be is a training gap. Back in 1986 I was hired by an insurance company as a computer programmer after having completed four years of college (linguistics major), followed by a six-month program in data processing. While I did have training going into the job, the company provided me and my co-workers with a lot of on-the-job training. They had an education department, and we all went through hours, and hours, and hours of paid on-the-job training in computer programming. My understanding about the reason the company did this was because they wanted to train us to do things the way they wanted them done.

Do you find that kind of thing to be true anymore? Are companies willing to invest in training their employees after they have been hired? Or are companies no longer willing to do that?

Nick Corcodilos: You’re raising an important question about the so-called “talent and skills shortage.” Who is actually responsible for brewing talent and skills? Job seekers? Schools? Employers themselves?

It seems clear that most employers believe they should be able to acquire skills ready-made. Despite the fact that the nature of a job depends a lot on a particular company’s business — after all, jobs are not one-size-fits-all-companies — businesses expect that the exact combination of skills they want is going to walk in the door just because they advertised for it.

The training gap is real
Consider the embarrassing contradiction: Any company will tell you that it is the most competitive one in its industry, that its products are uniquely the best, that what they deliver isn’t available anywhere else.

So, why is it they expect the unique talent they want to hire already exists, as if it comes in a can to be purchased on a job board — or that it already exists at a competing company? They might as well admit that their products are the same as everyone else’s.

If you admit you can get your new hires wholly made from another employer — your competitor — then you might as well tell your customers to shop there, too. If a company wants the skills and talents it needs to be unique, it had better take responsibility for creating them.

I don’t believe there’s any talent or skills gap. At least in the United States, talent abounds. There’s arguably more talent on the street, looking for work, than ever in history. But to make a worker an element of its unique, competitive edge, the company must make that worker in its own image. It must cast the worker as unique as its products or services. It takes the same kind of investment to brew talent as to brew a competitive product.

We know for a fact that employers have cut back enormously on training. Wharton researchers have shown that, adjusting for time, technology and other factors, American workers are no less skilled or educated than they’ve ever been. However, employers have all but stopped training employees. Employers own the problem – they created it. (See “Employment in America: WTF is going on?“)

Wharton’s Peter Cappelli writes in The Wall Street Journal:

“Unfortunately, American companies don’t seem to do training anymore. Data are hard to come by, but we know that apprenticeship programs have largely disappeared, along with management-training programs. And the amount of training that the average new hire gets in the first year or so could be measured in hours and counted on the fingers of one hand.”

Goodbye, competitive edge!
Your 1986 story confirms findings that, not very long ago, employers considered training important. Today, it’s pathetic. It’s embarrassing. It’s shameful. HR departments think they can buy off-the-shelf workers who don’t need or deserve training or skills development, while their marketing departments claim the company’s products are unique, state-of-the-art and without equal. This training gap is the pinnacle of corporate hypocrisy.

Then there’s the industry that aids and abets it. LinkedIn and other job boards successfully market the astonishing idea that “we have the perfect candidate in our database – just keep looking!” (See “Reductionist Recruiting: A short history of why you can’t get hired — Or, Why LinkedIn gets paid even when jobs don’t get filled.”) Employers buy that bunk sandwich in bulk, and stuff it into their recruiting strategies and hiring policies. They behave as if they can hire “just in time” the “perfect candidate” who has been doing the same job for five years already — at a lower salary.

What job seeker wants either of those two “qualities” in a new job?

When employers fail to educate, train and develop their new hires and existing employees, I think they kill their competitive edge. Their customers get cookie-cutter products and services. What this state of affairs tells us is that there’s a talent shortage in corporate leadership. (See “Talent Shortage, Or Poor Management?“)

As long as employers treat people — that “human resource,” that “human asset” — as a fungible commodity or interchangeable parts to be bought and sold as-is, their products and services will be no better than interchangeable parts sold at the lowest possible price.

A scrap-heap of “me-too” companies
Take a look at another article by Peter Cappelli, where he slaps management hard upside the head with this apt analogy:

“Imagine a car manufacturer that decided to buy a key engine component for its cars rather than make them. The requirements for that component change every year, and if you can’t get one that fits, the car won’t run. What would we say about that manufacturer if it just assumed the market would deliver the new component with the specifications it needed when it needed it and at the price it needed? It would certainly flunk risk management. Yet that’s what these…companies are doing.”

I think Cappelli answers your question, and I don’t think there’s any debate: Most companies no longer invest in shaping and developing their employees. Their talent-challenged finance executives preach that cost reduction is a better path to profitability than investment. This exacts an enormous price on our economy because it’s relegating those companies to the scrap heap of “me-too” enterprises, and it’s failing our workforce as a whole.

I also think you highlight the solution: “…the reason the company [provided extensive education and development]… was because they wanted to train us to do things the way they wanted them done.” That’s what gave your employer an edge. No investment in training means no edge.

Drive on by and keep your edge
My advice: Keep on truckin’ right past employers that provide no education, training or development to new hires and employees. These are companies that don’t invest in their future success — or yours.

Go find their able competitors. There are some good ones out there. They’re not easy to find, just like talent isn’t easy to develop. (That’s why you should pursue the best companies — not jobs.) The mark of a truly competitive product is the unique skills and talents a company developed to produce it.

The next time you interview a company, ask to see their employee training and development plan. If they don’t have a good one, tell them your career plan is to avoid working in a stagnant environment. Flip them a quarter and tell them to call their next candidate, because they probably still have a pay phone in the lunch room.

Dear Readers: Does your employer provide training and development to give you (and itself) a competitive advantage? When you’re job hunting, do you ask about employee education? If you’re an employer, what kind of training to you do?


Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth “how to” PDF books are available on his website: “How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you,” “How Can I Change Careers?”, “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps” and “Fearless Job Hunting.”

Send your questions to Nick, and join him for discussion every week here on Making Sense. Thanks for participating!

Copyright © 2015 Nick Corcodilos. All rights reserved in all media. Ask the Headhunter® is a registered trademark.

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