This past week I was interviewed by a reporter from a major news magazine. He contacted me about a controversial article  I had written on ERE addressing the lack of forward-thinking when it comes to companies developing talent acquisition strategies. In the article I suggested that follow-the-leader seemed to be the dominant strategy of choice used by most companies.
We then got around to talking about the skills gap in the U.S. workforce, whether it was real or imaginary, and if anything could be done about it. “Plenty” was my instant comment. Here’s what came next:
- We don’t have a skills gap; we have a thinking gap. I suggested that the real problem was the wrong strategy. In a talent scarcity world, you can’t use skills to screen out people who don’t have them. I describe this as the sourcing Catch 22. (Here’s a video I did for LinkedIn summarizing the problem .) The solution is rethinking how we screen, assess, and hire people. (Here’s a link to an upcoming webcast  on one way to do this.)
- HR leaders aren’t willing to own and implement the “talent is No. 1” vision. I’m working with a number of CEOs right now on how to get HR leaders to take a lead on owning the whole talent process from beginning to end. It seems that all too often, HR leaders aren’t chosen for their ability to execute the vision of making talent No. 1, despite their lofty pronouncements and best intentions. To me, HR leaders should be equally as committed to ensuring great people are being hired as the CFO is to maximizing profitability. This means being more forceful in implementing programs that raise the talent bar, not maintain the status quo. Few people enjoy preparing a detailed ROI analysis to justify a $200,000 capital investment. Yet HR allows these same people a great deal of leeway in spending the same amount to hire someone.
- U.S. Department of Labor regulations worsen the problem. The government is equally as culpable, if not the root cause, of the national skills gap. Here’s why: its compliance method of choice is to use “objective” criteria as a means to ensure fairness in the hiring process. Somehow this got translated into using a list of quantifiable skills and experiences to advertise and screen candidates. This is the Catch-22 mentioned above, screening out people for something we already know they don’t have. Making matters worse, there is very little science behind the objective criteria used for screening. When people ask me how much experience people need for a job, I always say “enough to do the work required.” Taking this one step further, maybe we should define the work instead of the skills needed to do it . It seems to me that, something like “design a circuit to double battery life in the iPhone 5” is more objective than “5 years of power circuit design experience and a BSEE from a top-tier university.” The screening would then consist of proving they can do the work or learn how quickly.
- Hiring managers aren’t fully committed nor capable. Most hiring managers aren’t rewarded or promoted based on their ability to hire outstanding people. Short-term performance is at the top of their priority list, reinforcing the apparent need for a full laundry list of skills and experience. Flipping this mindset is part of the solution. Amazon’s raising the talent bar approach is another, where a talent advisory team ensures that every hiring decision balances both short-term performance with long-term potential.
- Substitute achievement, potential, and ability to learn to bridge the skills gap. This is really the key to the solution: the best substitute for the skills gap is to hire people based on their ability to learn, motivate, and lead others and achieve results . This would instantly open the prospect pool to vets, wounded warriors, and all types of diversity candidates. One of numerous ways of assessing this is to ask candidates about their biggest accomplishments where they had the least amount of experience. Then focus on their ability to learn, deal with ambiguity, leadership, and achieving results with limited resources. Regardless of how achievement is assessed, the only way to implement the concept is to first break the institutionalized habit of over-reliance on skills and experiences.
- Offer more apprentice-like programs to bridge the skills gap. A skills and experience gap of 10-20% can usually be addressed with specialized in-house training, coaching, and management support. This amount of “stretch” represents the typical promotion or lateral transfer. Skills gaps bigger than this need to be more formalized with some of the training offered by community colleges and trade schools in combination with local business support. Businesses need to pay for much of this training — not the taxpayer. One of the CEOs I worked with in the past created and paid for a state-sponsored apprentice program for toolmakers. Much of the hands-on was conducted at his facilities, and of course, he had the first chance to the hire the best of the group.
Eliminating the skills gap starts by first figuring out the real problem. Unfortunately, most HR execs don’t start here; instead, they follow the leader, purchase off-the-shelf solutions, cover the problem with a few Band-Aids, or apply short-term fixes, mistaking activity for progress. Long ago, a CEO I worked for loudly proclaimed that strategy drives tactics, not the other way around. Maybe this would be a good place to start .