Taking Action on Technical Skills

The other day I received a link to a video that talked about our current unemployment situation and the number of jobs that are currently vacant and waiting to be filled in the USA. It shared that there are approximately 13 million people unemployed as of June 2011, and that there are an estimated 2 million job openings, and the impact that filling those job openings could have on the economy. Of course, the thing holding back the filling of many of those job openings is that most of these jobs require people with specific skills.

On the same day that I received the link to this video there is a news segment on TV about the need to retrain people who have obsolete skills with the new skills that we now need. This brought back memories of when I worked on a project with a large mid-western state back in 2001 that was trying to do the same thing. They wanted to “retool” their workforce from steel and coal to the more high-tech jobs that were at that time in demand. Unfortunately, most of the jobs that they wanted to focus on aren’t that much in demand today.

These stories also made me think of one of my clients that I had visited this past month. Despite what most people think, manufacturing is not dead in the USA, and I have been fortunate to have a few of these organizations as clients. One of them was sharing with me that they had the need for some screw machine operators, and that they had 5 positions that they needed to fill.

For those that do not know what a screw machine operator does, they operate a machine that manufactures very small, very delicate, and very precise screws for use in other precision machinery. This isn’t something you just take someone off the street and teach them how to do it in a few hours, days or even weeks. It takes many, many years of training and experience to become a good screw machine operator. Unfortunately, there just aren’t that many people choosing this as a profession, so despite the client being willing to pay these people $30 per hour or more, and willing to pay to relocate them, they were having a very, very hard time filling these 5 positions.

In his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell shared some research that reveals that it takes about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become a master at doing something. If you are working full time at trying to master something, then it would take you about 5 years to accomplish this. Gladwell shared that it usually takes about 10 years to become really good at doing something, because rarely do we “deliberately practice” 8 full hours a day.

This has three implications. First, if we are going to try to “retool” people from their obsolete skills to new skills, it is going to take some time to get them up to speed. While there might be some learning transfer, what is most often being talked about is the delivery of totally new skills, and most of these skills are high-tech skills being delivered to low-tech workers. Second, not all “old” skills need to be retooled. It is far easier to teach a modern machinist how to be a screw machine operator than it is to teach someone who has no skills at all in operating modern machinist equipment. Unfortunately, we do not encourage children to become a machinist when they are in high school; we encourage them to go to college or a university instead.

The third issue is related to the second. If employers know that they need these rare, highly skilled technical workers that don’t require a college education, then they need to get involved with the school systems to share this need. They need to reach out to parents and get them out of the idea that a university is the preferred destination for their child and the only way that they can be financially successful in the future. After all, a technical college training program is far less expensive than a 4 year degree, and in the end their child can be easily earning $60,000 a year or more, plus benefits.

This is precisely what my client is doing. They are greatly involved in their own local public school system, as well as being involved with the state technical college system to help insure that the right skills are being taught for their needs. They are building the relationships at high school now so that in the future they will have highly skilled workers to fill their positions.

So what are your needs, both now and for the future, and what are you doing now that will insure that your needs will be met both now and for the future? Are you relying on the system and hoping that they will meet your needs, or are you taking a proactive approach to insure that your needs will be met? Remember, a good manager sets out with Intent and acts accordingly to achieve their goals.