Will We Ever Learn?

10/6/11

At a recent meeting with 8 CHROs, one of my colleagues posed a question based on a discussion with an alumnus. This alum believed that the structural changes in the economy might lead to there simply not being enough jobs in the economy in the future.

A discussion quickly ensued regarding the vast numbers of unfilled jobs in skilled occupations within the companies represented at that meeting. For instance, as companies build new plants there is a great need for welders. However, there simply is not the supply of workers coming out of a skilled trades educational background.

In the vein of "Will we ever learn?" it reminded me of the fact that in 1987 the Hudson Institute came out with the "Workforce 2000" report, followed by the publication in 1997 of the "Workforce 2020" report. In both of these reports, the researchers projected the workforce demographics that were emerging and predicted the nature of the workforce of the future. One of the most frightening predictions was of the tremendous "skills gap" that would emerge as fewer skilled workers entered the workforce while firms increasingly created skilled jobs. So, as I listened to the complaints about the lack of skilled workers, all I could think of is that, as frustrating as it might be, it certainly should not have been a surprise.

The more important question now is what are the short- and long-term solutions to this dilemma. Certainly there will be a role for partnering with government, and I know that a number of CHROs are part of various administrative task forces looking at these issues. However, if such groups worked, then we wouldn't be in the situation we are in today, since we knew we'd be in it over 20 years ago. My bias may be showing, but government has attempted to "solve" problems for years, and, as Dr. Phil would say, "How's that working out for you?"

My suggestion would be that a better partnership would be among all large employers (competitors and non-competitors) and the local school systems. Back in the 90s I remember working for Amoco in Texas City, TX, who had partnered with the local junior college to develop a program to train operators for their refinery. While it did produce a skilled labor pool from which they could draw, the risk they faced was that they would invest in the program and the graduates would work for their competitors. Now is the time for all of the major local employers, competitors or not, to join with local education institutions to develop programs to encourage young people to prepare for skilled trades. Each employer could provide some funding, thus sharing in both the costs and the benefits. While they would still ultimately compete for the talent being produced, such efforts would at least increase the supply of that talent.

We need to do something, otherwise we'll find ourselves in 2020 and wondering why there aren't enough skilled workers to fill our jobs. In other words, what will today's CHROs do to ensure that tomorrow's CHROs don't face the same problems?