THE BLOG
10/24/2013 03:58 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Why Most Workforce Development Efforts Don't Work

Q: What happens when the Future of Work meets the Traditional Workforce?
A: A Perfect Labor Storm

Like many other things wrong with our economy, slow job creation gets lots of attention. But while more jobs would be a good thing, many of them might go unfilled despite valiant efforts by business, communities and government to restore them. Even as I write this, despite prolonged high unemployment, many businesses just can't find enough people with skills they need. Imagine the surge in the war for talent that would erupt adding another million or so skill-dependent jobs into our economy at a time when the skills gap is widening.

For example, nearly one-third of PA companies recently reported that they were having a "very or extremely difficult" time of hiring employees with the right skills. In the same survey conducted by the PA Chamber of Business and Industry, more than half the participants expected this difficulty to get worse over the next five years. This problem is echoed nearly every day in every state. And the more that manufacturing, technology, and healthcare drive regional economics, the more difficult the hiring gets.

The cries from business leaders and pundits alike have of course stimulated a responsive but obligatory deluge of rhetoric from politicians and bureaucrats. Local workforce development initiatives between business, government, and schools are rising faster than a hot video going viral on YouTube. While I'm not discounting these massive efforts and occasional successes, strategic myopia is blinding leaders from finding sustainable and viable long term solutions for the United States to compete in a volatile, uncertain, and complex global marketplace.

It's not their fault that the ROI from much of the development is limited and short-term. It's not their intention to put Band-Aids on a dying patient (aka the workforce.) A white paper by Towers Watson aptly describes the problem: "The recession has put the final nail in the coffin of the traditional 'deal' that once existed between employees and employers."

Many workforce development initiatives are still training for jobs like it is 1975. Heck, even if the mindset was 1995 or 2005, the context is wrong. Leaders are seeking a solution to skilled worker shortages that ignore new realities. Too much focus is being directed at teaching workers skills for jobs that won't exist soon. Many programs teach skills for jobs that are already extinct or outsourced. And as politically incorrect as the following might be, giving people the opportunity to learn new skills for jobs that are being phased out for a multitude of reason is a waste of time, money, and resources. It is giving people false hope and draining resources from better solutions.

The biggest reason for failure is this: Even when the skill training and education is on the right path, it doesn't consider how the definition of work, the description of a job, and the re-shaping of the workplace has changed. For workforce development to really work, leaders in business, government and schools must consider the following four forces that are reshaping work, jobs, and workplaces.

1. Disruptive technology. Revolutionary like changes in how we live and play are changing our world. The changes we are experiencing are comparable to the shift from an agricultural era to the industrial age...and few of us were around in the mid-1850s to understand how a revolutionary change in the workplace differs from evolution. We have experienced more disruptive innovation in a decade than our grandparents saw in their lifetime. The technology is more disruptive and the pace of development is accelerating. It is difficult to predict the next disruption but one thing is for sure - it will happen and workforce development leaders must anticipate the enormity and certainty of a continuously changing workforce.

2. Work. The definition of work has changed. Jobs that involved the extraction of raw material (mining) and conversion into finished products are mostly automated or outsourced. Work requiring "brawn" is all but extinct and the demand for "brain" workers is what will make our economy tick again.

3. Jobs. Employees in many skilled jobs don't "go to work" anymore. Many new jobs are virtual and dynamic. Few jobs are permanent. Even jobs, like healthcare, that require a physical presence have changed. X-rays can be taken and diagnosed from half-way around the world. Surgeries can be done remotely using robotics. Patients will be monitored at home, just as they used to be in a fully staffed intensive care unit.

4. Four Generations. Our population is living longer. That means for the first time in history we have four generations living and working side by side. Soon we will have five. Each generation has different values, needs, and preferences. Each has learned to learn differently. Young workers are learning skills for the first time. Many other workers are first unlearning what they knew in order to learn what they need to know. Workforce development needs to address a diversity of age in the working population and not assume one size training fits all.

Employers must rethink the concept of a workplace and the definition of work and jobs before they can expect communities and government to develop more skilled workers. A skilled worker today is not just a worker with the right technical skills but one who can work productively in a new 21st workplace, which is anything like the brick-and-mortar factories of the past.

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