The Future of Learning: Connecting People Who Want Jobs with Jobs that Need People

The global skills shortage is not about a lack of skilled workers. It’s really about our collective inability to connect learning with emerging job opportunities.

Ranjit de Sousa
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It was one of those stories that spoke volumes about the state of today’s global labor market.

The New York Times recently profiled a New Jersey woman who had been diligently looking for full-time work ever since she was laid off in March 2016 from her job as a production manager at an advertising agency. 

In those three years, she applied for more than 500 different jobs.

While she searched for that elusive full-time job, she used her time constructively by taking a project management course at a college. But nothing seemed to do the trick; over the past three years, she has only been able to find short-term contracts.

It seemed extraordinary to me that someone with solid job experience who had also made legitimate attempts to upgrade her skillset could not find a full-time job, even in an era when we are told there is a global shortage of skilled workers.

However, when I thought more about it, I realized that the global skills shortage is not about a lack of skilled workers. It’s really about our collective inability to connect learning with emerging job opportunities. The result is that we have a mismatch that leaves organizations without the skilled workers they need and otherwise talented and motivated workers without meaningful, sustainable job opportunities.

Traditional approaches to learning—compulsory or voluntary programs in a formal classroom setting—have not proven effective. More informal approaches, where learners are in control of the learning process and outcomes, have shown some promise but have failed to make a dent in the skills shortage.

The problem with traditional learning strategies is that they lack strategic focus. Companies usually offer employees opportunities to learn things that help them improve upon the job they are doing. Rarely, it seems, do they offer opportunities for employees to learn things that will help them fill the jobs of the future.

As well, too many organizations see their workforces as replaceable as opposed to renewable resources. These organizations believe they can still hire to fill new skillset needs. The reality is that global shortages of workers with future skills make it impossible to just go out and shop for new people on demand.

Complicating matters, younger generations now demand a whole new approach to learning and gathering information. These are the generations that do not read newspapers or watch the evening television news. They very much want to learn, but they don’t want to sit in classrooms or stare at awkward avatars. They want to use technology as a conduit for focused, purposeful learning.

Learning must be directly connected to actual jobs

LHH recently sponsored a luncheon in New York City to coincide with the World Business Forum (WBF). Our featured speaker at the luncheon was Ian Williamson, the dean of the Wellington School of Business and Government at Victoria University in New Zealand, and a featured speaker at the WBF.

In his luncheon address, Williamson posed a number of questions to the assembled business leaders to help them build a workforce of the future. The first question, and perhaps the most important, was “do you know the skills your organization needs to fuel innovation and drive business strategy?” 

Williamson told us a story about work he did with Nestlé in Malaysia and Singapore. After decades of dominating the beverage industry in the two South Asian countries, a local upstart unleashed new and appealing products that eroded Nestlé’s once-insurmountable market share.

The problem for Nestlé was that this new competitor was very much rooted in the local culture of the two countries. Nestlé found its success by marketing its line of global products, not products with a true local flavor.

Rather than wave the white flag, Williamson said Nestlé began working closely with local schools to train a new generation of workers. The result was an influx of young and innovative talent that helped the company unleash a new array of products that were able to earn back market share from the local competitors.

Successful organizations must look first to their existing talent pool to fill future skill needs

Human capital must be viewed as a renewable resource, rather than a component that can be removed and replaced at the drop of a hat.

One of our clients, BAE Systems in the United Kingdom, has an extensive redeployment program at work that allows skilled workers in one area of its extensive operations to obtain training to take on jobs in other areas. 

As a defense contractor, BAE has traditionally suffered through a hiring and layoff cycle driven by contract schedules. As one contract winds down, workers are laid off even as the company is hiring in another area to ramp up for a completely different contract. 

To avoid this cycle, BAE Systems developed a program that offered intensive training for any employee that had roughly 60 percent of the skills necessary to perform a different job. Since 2008, the program allowed the company to redeploy more than 1,300 employees, saving more than £20 million in severance and transition costs and retaining 20,000 years of expertise.

Technology can assist learning but cannot replace the human touch

There has been a lot of talk about whether people are ready for the “Uberization” of education. That’s an interesting idea, particularly if you follow the logic employed by Uber.

The Uber app does not, in and of itself, transport you from one place to another. The Uber app connects you with a person with a car who is willing to shuttle you from one place to another for a fee. It is technology that connects people to accomplish a valuable goal.

Now, apply that same equation to education. We have already tried to use technology to deliver the actual learning with mixed results. In the future, however, we will need to employ technology as a conduit that connects the people who want to learn with those who can deliver learning.

We at LHH are already experimenting with technology that can help connect people with teachers, coaches and mentors. These are the people who can help individual workers plot their future careers and find the learning opportunities that will give the best shot at a sustainable job. 

Right now, we are not doing a good job at matching people who need jobs with the jobs that need filling. But with a focus on improved learning opportunities and a more deliberate effort to connect people with future skills, we are getting closer.
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