For decades, American companies prided themselves on constantly teaching their employees new tricks -- offering apprenticeships, training programs, and other initiatives to expand job skills. Doing so helped companies adapt to changing strategies and new technologies, and, for blue-chip brands like IBM and GE during their glory years, re-training often promised a lifetime of secure, successful employment. In the 1970s, according to a study by the Wharton School, young employees received an average of 2.5 weeks of training every year.
In recent years, however, re-training has fallen on hard times. As recently as 2008, 55% of U.S. companies were investing in cross-training employees to develop new skills, according to survey from the Society for Human Resource Management. By 2011, that number was down to 43%; today, it’s 38% and likely headed lower.
The Re-Training Decline
So what gives? A few things. First, the blistering pace of technology change has ratcheted up a constant need for new skills in the marketplace. Second, recent economic recessions and tech-driven boom-and-bust periods have encouraged a perpetual cycle of layoffs followed by re-hiring, while training programs fell by the wayside. Third, in the era of a “free agent” labor force, companies don’t want to re-invest in employees’ skills when they’re likely to jump ship before the company sees any fruits of said investment.
Yet the smartest companies, according to many training experts and economists, are those who remain committed to a “build, not buy” mentality about developing a top-notch workforce -- those that resist the temptation to blame the economy or a “skills gap” for their struggles to find good people. As Wharton School professor Peter Cappelli (author of Why Good People Can’t Find Good Jobs) explained recently, “companies need to stop pinning so much of the blame on our nation's education system. They need to drop the idea of finding perfect candidates and look for people who could do the job with a bit of training and practice.”
Here are a few ways that companies can re-invest in their own employees -- with low risk and high reward:
1. Put Good People in "Stretch Roles"
Bill Cushard, a Colorado-based author, blogger, learning experience designer and facilitator, argues that the benefits of retraining -- both to the individual as well as the company -- usually outweigh costs and risks. “The best way to learn is to put someone in a stretch role and support them,” Cushard says. “And what better message to send to employees than, ‘We see these skills as required for our future, and we think you are the people to learn these new skills to get us to our future and here's how we are going to support you.’ I think companies need to put people in stretch roles more. We all know people who are under-utilized in their organizations because management is stuck in the mindset that a person can only do a specific job and nothing else. That’s why many employees quit.”
2. Try Informal Apprenticeships
Want to take a step beyond just adding a “stretch role”? Consider an apprenticeship, which needn’t be part of an expensive formal program with testing and certifications -- employees can simply be assigned to take on a larger role at a lower salary under someone’s supervision until they are deemed to have mastered the gig. As Capelli adds, “accounting firms, law firms and professional-services firms have long operated this way, and have made lots of money off their young associates.”
3. Partner with Colleges to Fill Your Skill Gaps
Don’t have the budget to invest in a training program -- online or offline? Consider teaming up with community colleges or universities, which, as Cappelli explains, “have proved to be good partners with employers by tailoring very applied course work to the specific needs of the employer.” The strategy can work not just for existing employees looking to upgrade skills, but for outside job candidates as well.Photo: Creative Commons