The war-for-talent threat expected to follow the exodus of tens of thousands of baby boomers from the business world in the next few years has taken on the same fervor and intensity in the learning space as Y2K. Savvy learning organizations are starting to consider their options seriously before things get too hot, and one of those options centers rather conveniently on development. Recruiting is expensive, and without attractive levers, retention is unreliable, particularly because many of the characteristics of the generation Xers and Yers who will fill retiring leaders’ shoes lead these employee groups to exercise a kind of shop-around-for-the-best-deal type mentality. So far the best answer is to groom the next generation of leaders in house and position learning and development as an integral part of the new-employment deal.
“Our research overwhelming shows that learning is one of the most popular and important ways that companies can increase their attractiveness to employees,” said Tamara Erickson, president of The Concours Institute and co-author of “Workforce Crisis: How to Beat the Coming Shortage of Skills and Talent.” “In one of our surveys some of the very basic compensation things score higher, but in terms of all of the possible non-bread-and-butter parts of the employment deal, learning is way up at the top. It’s the number-one factor right after basic compensation in terms of what people are looking for. It’s a very powerful component of the employee equation and becoming more so because the younger cohort, people 35 and under, tend to value it very highly and are particularly sensitive to look for job environments where learning is a big opportunity.”
For a company ensure that its learning and development offerings are on par with or exceed current marketplace expectations, there are few things to keep top of mind. First, people like to get their learning in small chunks interspersed with opportunities to apply it quickly, said Erickson. That might mean developing or expanding learning curricula to include engaging e-learning, interactive simulations or other types of just-in-time, on-demand information sharing devices that can give employees what they want, when they want it, in a format that they like. “A career path that many of us might have gone through in the past that would have us in an apprentice-like position for some period of time before we’re actually allowed to do something is not appealing to people,” Erickson said. “Another problem that we found in many companies is that learning opportunities were only being offered to certain people within the corporation, often younger or newer employees.”
By singling out these groups in the workforce population, Erickson said organizations miss a prime chance to rejuvenate the mid-career-aged worker (age 35 to 44) with learning opportunities. In the past, learning occurred on the job in a kind of learn-by-doing or experiential environment where employees could run small portions of the business, lead projects or take on leadership internationally via global assignments. But it’s increasingly difficult for today’s organizations to provide these types of opportunities for a broad number of people. “In a sense, learning has to fill a new role. It has to be able to provide people with experiential opportunities so they can get used to making decisions with complex information, etc. It’s not just book learning. It has a big contextual component to it.
“There’s no question that there’s going to be a big skills shortage going forward,” Erickson said. “Like it or not, you really are very significant in the learning business. You are not going to be able to find the workforce that you think you’d like to have to fill vacant slots. For example, jobs that you think you’d like to have a college graduate for, there aren’t going to be enough college graduates. You’re going to be forced to hire people without college degrees, and then you’ll need to be able to provide them with the skills that are required to do the work.”
Companies have to take a close look at their learning capabilities and keep in mind that at some point in the future it might be necessary to hire people without the right background or experience, who are essentially a little less qualified than what’s desired. Under that less-than-nideal cloud of conditions, can the organization bring such employees up to the necessary level of capability? “In many ways that’s probably the most significant change for companies,” Erickson explained. “They might go through the entire workforce and think about having a set of candidates one level less qualified. What skills would you have to provide in order to bring people up to performance levels, and do we know how to do that?”
The talent shortage problem has been prevalent in Europe and Australia for some time, and Erickson said it’s not a bad idea for multi-national organizations to benchmark their learning and development colleagues overseas for ideas and for guidance on how to position and market learning and development to attract top talent. It also pays to analyze the different populations within your workforce to determine how they emotionally engage in work. Are employees motivated by financial obligations, the excitement of risk and reward, a desire for team victory or a need to leave something of lasting value behind? What drives employees, and how do those desires connect to your company’s learning-and-development offerings? How can senior-level learning executives leverage that information to place learning and development in a bright spot in the overall employment package?
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