Education and training - the need to reinvent 'wheels'

By Dr Steven McCabe on Dec 29, 12 12:45 PM in General

An article in December's edition of the Harvard Business Review, 'Who Can Fix the "Middle-Skills" Gap?' by Thomas Kochan, David Finegold, and Paul Osterman suggests that, in America, there is what they believe to be a problem in getting people with appropriate skills and experience to fill vacancies in what they call 'middle skills' - those between operative and senior management level.

As the authors explain, the number of 'middle skills' jobs grew as organisations have had to employ more managers with skills to coordinate the multiplicity of roles and relationships that exist in the contemporary workplace.

This trend equally applied in the UK and a promotion to middle management has always been seen as a great way for those who started at operative level - frequently on an apprenticeship - to make their way up the career ladder.

Indeed, there are undoubtedly a number of senior managers who made their way up in precisely this way.

However, from the late 1970s there have been fewer apprenticeships available because a combination of increased efficiency and automation meant that the number of operatives was reduced; if you have never visited a world class manufacturing facility you will usually be surprised at how few people work on the 'shopfloor'.

Kochan, Finegold, and Osterman recognise that as firms felt that they needed to downsize and reduce cost they have cut back on training programmes.

Some might suggest that given how many graduates we produce there should not be a problem.

The reality is that a graduate does not have the same wealth of experience that someone who has worked their way up from operative level will have.

Even though the number of graduates who are employed direct into management it has long been recognised that there is a problem in that many do not possess the requisite skills in science, technology and maths.

As Kochan, Finegold, and Osterman state, only 15% of US students study what would be regarded as appropriate qualifications and there is a growing crisis in the US to create an increasing supply of those who possess 'midlevel skills'.

This poses the question of how to increase the number; especially in a time of austerity when it is increasingly difficult for organisations to survive?

Based on empirical observation of what they have seen work successfully in the US, Kochan, Finegold, and Osterman provide some suggestions.

Perhaps not surprisingly they believe that 'registered apprenticeships' still offer a very effective way for organisations to ensure the steady supply of those with required skills and experience.

As they stress, apprenticeships are good for all concerned:

"The most recent studies estimate that graduates enjoy a $250,000 increase in lifetime earnings and that employers get a 38% return on their investment in the form of lower recruitment costs [and they] consistently report high satisfaction with graduates' skills, performance and reliability."

In order to deal with the immediate costs that might be a deterrent Kochan, Finegold, and Osterman point to the example of industries in which there is collaboration between companies.

Collaboration is important they acknowledge in order to deal with the old dilemma that what if you are the only one training and others simply poach your staff once they have been trained.

Such collaboration is found at the Center (sic) for Energy Workforce Development (CEWD) a non-profit consortium of energy providers, their trade associations and trade unions.

Kochan, Finegold, and Osterman describe the experience of Georgia Power which 'streamlined' the way in which it recruited and trained its workers by using a collaborative training programme that involved 50 utility organisations and which is supported by four technical colleges with tangible results:

"[Georgia Power] was able to reduce the initial pool of candidates by close to 90% and to trim hiring and basic-training costs by 3% [which] boosted employee retention from 75% to 93%, further increasing savings and productivity."

They also describe the training programme of the Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee (AJAC) in Washington.

In 1988 a collaboration involving Boeing and trade union the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace workers (IAMAW) following joint research into what was seen as best-practice in joint training was developed.

In 2009 Boeing and IAMAW joined with the state of Washington, regional community colleges and other interested local employers to form the AJAC which has developed common certification standards and course curricula. Importantly the AJAC is now regarded as main way in which Boeing and all other employers in aerospace in Washington procure the workers it needs to replace the many so called 'baby-boomers' who are facing retirement.

Kochan, Finegold, and Osterman further explain that other industries are following the AJAC model. In health there is the 1199 Service Employees International Union and New York City's League of Voluntary Hospitals and another involving Kaiser Permanente and the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions.

These programmes provide employees with training in skills that not only assists them in carrying out their roles more effectively but offers enhanced career prospects. In the case of the latter, which was launched in 2005, offers 79 courses in health care, nursing, technical aspects of health and basic skills in maths, communication and communication.

Once again the results are beneficial to all concerned; employees who complete the courses earn on average 18% more and there has been a decline in churn (workers leaving who, of course, need to be replaced at not insignificant cost).

The conclusion that Kochan, Finegold, and Osterman come to is that organisations which face 'similar challenges should recruit others in their industry or regional supply base to join them.'

What is significant is that this is happening in America, a country often regarded as the citadel of free enterprise. There would seem to be clear lessons for us to learn and as I have stressed on previous occasions, there should be a greater recognition of the fact that the word TEAM can be an acronym of 'Together Each Achieves More'.

As usual there is an urgent need for leadership by major employers and, of course, government. Individualism is all very well but, as we know from experience, better society based is created though cooperation and sharing.

Collaboration makes us a better and more cohesive society.

Sadly, it seems, we need to reinvent the 'wheels' that are education and training for the next generation. In the last few years, especially in the climate of cost reduction and desire to become more efficient, these appear to have been jettisoned.

Getting these 'wheels' back on should be a priority for everyone's sake.

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