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The Wrong Skills Gap
Submitted by DebsCane on 2012-09-13T13:44:50
Much has been made during this latest Presidential election cycle about whether America’s work force has the skills needed for 21st century job opportunities. More so, national, state and local candidates on both sides of the aisle all seem to want strategies for retraining workers, whether it comes from big government or private enterprise.
As a Training Program Manager for a business, technology and leadership program, I can assure you there is a wealth of talented candidates out there, who are adaptable, resilient critical thinkers. In the last year and a half, I have worked with over 50 interns who are bright, innovative and motivated, who solve problems in ways that are logical, elegant and surprising.
From my standpoint, the issue is not about a skill gap of American workers. The skill gap that I see is in entry-level managers. Instead of asking what skills entry level candidates need, what if we asked the private sector a different question: do your managers have the skills and the passion to shape and mentor entry-level talent to succeed in your business?
I understand from the business side why this idea has not taken hold. Of course, there’s great financial risk to spending time training new hires. It takes a lot of time, and effort, and there’s no guarantee that the employee won’t take that training and walk out the door. That being acknowledged from the start, I want to point out two arguments. One, based on recent statistics, the direct costs of replacing an employee who makes $60,000 per year would equate to over $49,000. When added with indirect costs, you can expect that the total cost of hiring will total $150,000. Two, we have a 21st century problem here that requires a paradigm shift in thinking. We need to start thinking in new ways to solve new problems.
A huge factor in this problem has to do with 20th century thinking. Since the end of World War II, America’s white collar success ladder has worked in the following way: if you are good at your job, you get promoted to manager. As a manager, you don’t get to tackle harder problems that speak to the skill set that helped you succeed in the first place. Instead, you get to manage people who are doing the job you are good at. Managing people is a completely different skill set than the job you were initially hired to do.
Learning to become a manager is a job on its own. I truly believe in Malcolm Gladwell’s argument that it takes 10,000 hours of solid work to get to a level of mastery, whether that mastery is hitting a curve ball or writing elegant code. But how many managers spend 10,000 hours working to become good managers? That is almost 5 years of working at it 40 hours a week, just on managing skills.
What I want to argue here is that great managing is teaching. And great teaching can happen in any office setting. It’s about creating an exciting space to learn, to grow and to be productive. It’s also about creating trusting relationships between management and staff, keeping lines of communication open, and being able to ask tough questions when necessary, from both sides.
Why are there so many management books at the top of the best seller lists? I believe that managers are hungry to figure out how to be GOOD managers. And why are there so many unfilled jobs in tech, particularly for junior developers? My answer is that most companies do not spend enough time cultivating great management talent. They don’t want to take the risk in hiring entry level talent that has the critical thinking skills needed to learn how to code, because they have great coders, but they don’t have enough people to train, to mentor, to teach a newbie at the beginning of a career.
And yes, helping new employees to become great employees does take time. I have heard in meeting after meeting from different firms who want “can’t-miss” candidates, and they want them fast. My question is – why can’t we take employees who are already can’t-miss, who already have the mission of your organization at heart and help them to become great managers through training entry-level talent?
If business were truly committed to solving this “skills gap,” they might start by paying attention to who can help them to mold smart, driven critical thinkers into the positions they need filled, rather than crying out that our workers don’t have the skill sets. Coding languages can be learned by smart, driven critical thinkers. It’s supporting those at the beginning of their journeys that requires a different, and dramatically lacking skill set in 21st century American workplaces.