09/11/2012 04:31 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2012

An Economy of Helicopter Employers

According to employers, American workers are failing the grade. Too many of them lack the skills and knowledge to compete with their counterparts overseas. The culprits, according to conventional wisdom, are our culture's indifference to science and math and our educational system's inability to teach those and other subjects effectively. However, while that view clearly has merit, there's another equally important cause that's been overlooked. It's companies behaving like helicopter employers.

It's no secret that the American workplace has become increasing complex and demanding. A recent report from the National Employment Law Project found that "midskill" jobs were the hardest hit in the last recession, and what job growth there is in the recovery is occurring at the two ends of the employment spectrum -- in high-skill and low-skill positions. In effect, workers today have only two choices: they can either acquire the skills and knowledge required for high-wage occupations or they can join the working poor.

This development is not some nefarious plot against the middle class, nor some secret union-busting initiative. It is the inevitable consequence of the changing world of work. As Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee point out in Race Against the Machine, the introduction of ever more capable technology in the American workplace is not only eliminating many jobs, it is also increasing the skills and knowledge required to perform the jobs that are being created. In a very real sense, the workplace is now characterized by perpetual change that requires equally as constant developmental adjustments by workers.

Employers will rightly point out that they've invested heavily in keeping their workers' skills up-to-date. While they're spending a lot money, however, they're undermining its impact by hovering over workers like helicopter employers. They send their employees off to this school or that for a job-related education, yet do nothing to prepare them to take responsibility for the management of their own career. They make sure their employees have the skills and knowledge they need in the present, but don't give those workers the same degree of expertise to prepare themselves for the future.

A Complete Education for Today's Workplace

For almost 25 years now, U.S. employers have been telling their workers that they're on their own when it comes to managing their careers. They may provide some job-related training, but companies can no longer afford the overhead of vast "personnel administration" departments that guide employees up a carefully structured ladder of expanding expertise and roles. That kind of benign corporate paternalism went out with the gold watch and is never coming back.

This shift in corporate practice, however, failed to recognize that most workers lack the skills and knowledge necessary to perform effective "career self-management." As I explain in my book, A Multitude of Hope: A Novel About Rediscovering the American Dream, neither community colleges nor four-year academic institutions consider such a topic important enough to include in the curriculum. They give their students a world-class education this academic field or that, but teach them absolutely nothing about how to make a career in that field.

As a result, even the "best educated" workers today don't know how to set appropriate employment goals or how to assess their own capabilities accurately and remediate the gaps. Many are unaware of the importance of building support networks that can help them resolve on-the-job problems or deal with the roadblocks and other issues that occur from time to time in all careers. And, worst of all, few if any truly understand the new imperatives of a workplace shaped by global competition or the challenge posed by ever more expert workers overseas.

This gap in workers' knowledge has two debilitating consequences. First, it undermines their performance in the present. They are unable to do their best work because they don't know what they don't know. And second, it ensures that workers will continue to look to employers for career direction and development in the future. They are unable to take responsibility for managing their own careers because they don't know how.

So, what should employers do?

Clearly, the answer is not to revert to past practices. Recreating huge personnel administration departments is not the answer in a highly competitive global economy. Instead, employers should provide a complete education for today's workplace. They should equip their workers to be doubly competent.

Smart employers will continue their investment in upgrading workers' occupational skills and knowledge and make a commensurate investment in teaching them a new set of skills and knowledge in career self-management. The former will give workers what they need to perform at their peak in the near term, while the later will enable workers to give themselves what they need to do their best work into the mid and longer term.

Employers have long been comfortable outsourcing the design and delivery of occupational education, and that approach is also appropriate for career education. A fulsome curriculum in the principles and practices of effective career self-management can be acquired from independent career counselors or, ironically, from the resources of college and university career centers. In most (but not all cases), their content will be appropriately synchronized with the reality of the modern workplace and incorporate the state-of-the-art in career strategies and tactics.

To be truly successful, however, employers must recognize that the instruction is a means to an end, not the end itself. The goal is to shift from a culture of employee dependency to one in which employees want and know how to take charge of their own careers. For that to happen, employers will have to use their performance appraisal systems and salary review processes to incent employees to become adept at and actually practice effective career self-management.

Organizations don't build high-performing workforces by hovering over workers like helicopter employers. They do so by helping them learn how to take responsibility for the strength, reach and endurance of their own career. Yes, that will make employees more self-sufficient and independent, but for well-led organizations, those are attributes which amplify both engagement and quality of work.