The U.S. unemployment rate has edged down in recent months, but it’s still high, and the numbers don’t include the millions of Americans who are underemployed or can find only part-time or contract positions. The problem is there’s a growing mismatch between the skills companies need and the capabilities of people who are applying for openings.
There’s a lot at stake for companies. The mismatch can result in delays in product releases, lower customer satisfaction and revenue loss. Workers are just as stressed about the growing skills gap, according to the Accenture U.S. Skills Gap Survey 2011, which polled 1,088 U.S. employed and unemployed workers (Editor’s note: The authors work for Accenture). Some of that stress is because many are unclear which skills they need to advance their careers.
Wanted: A Broader Skill Set
Today’s knowledge-driven, technology-oriented economy demands workers have not just one core skill, but a robust portfolio of skills, and it is increasingly difficult to find the right candidate with all of the skills needed for certain jobs.
There is no shortage of reasons why a portfolio of skills is needed now. Advances in technology are one reason. For example, if a talent manager is running a large, upscale hotel chain, housekeepers and service staff must know how to not only check in guests and clean rooms but also help travelers connect their iPads in the hotel and troubleshoot for guests using self check-in kiosks.
New management methods — such as those requiring front-line workers to solve quality or customer-service problems at the point of need — are also prompting workers to develop an array of skills. As companies strive to achieve new efficiencies, boost productivity and present a unified face to the customer, they increasingly want workers who have skills in many functional areas. To be more responsive to customers and able to make customer-relevant decisions at the front lines, sales staff must have marketing skills, and marketers must have sales skills. For managerial positions, companies want candidates who can navigate different geographies and excel at communicating important ideas and motivating employees.
The problem is not confined to companies losing baby boomers to retirement, enterprises competing in high-tech industries or even to those operating in specialized areas that are heavily reliant on skills in science, technology, engineering or mathematics. Accenture’s ongoing interviews with executive teams indicate that skills gaps are widespread across industries, geographies and nearly all types of workforces, ranging from manufacturing and purchasing to beer brewing and utility line work. Every executive Accenture interviewed said his or her company is facing skills gaps in a host of functions — gaps that prevent it from effectively executing its business strategies.
What Workers Say
U.S. companies have part of the solution for the skills gap close at hand, if they can reverse the long-term trend of paring back training and talent development — a trend which worsened during the recession.
According to the Accenture survey, workers are willing to develop new skills, but they need more support from employers. Some 55 percent of workers reported they are under pressure to develop additional skills to succeed in their current and future jobs (Figure 1). But only 21 percent said they have acquired new skills through formal, company-provided training during the past five years; 6 percent have participated in training through podcasts and other informal mechanisms (Figure 2).
More than two-thirds — 68 percent — said they believe it is primarily their own responsibility, rather than their employer’s, to update their skills (Figure 3). However, to develop the skills their companies need, employees must know what those skills are as well as where and when they’re needed. This requires that employees understand the organization’s strategic direction because that drives skill needs.
Although individuals are taking on this responsibility, they often do not get clear signals from employers on exactly which skills would be most beneficial. For example, only 49 percent of respondents reported their employer does a good job of providing a clear understanding of the skills needed for different roles and career paths. And only 53 percent of unemployed workers said they understand which skills are likely to be in demand in the next five years, compared to 80 percent of current employees.
Technology dominates skills development, with more than half — 52 percent — of workers saying they have added technology skills in the past five years. Fewer people have updated other skills that employers value, such as problem solving — 31 percent; data analysis — 26 percent; or managerial skills — 21 percent.
Given the march toward increasing levels of knowledge-based work in companies, and the less predictable nature of most of that work, these higher-order skills are becoming more important.
For example, textbook salespeople used to approach a school board or an educational institution with a catalog and ask which books they’d like to adopt for their students. Today, salespeople must also know how to directly serve students, who can go online to buy a textbook, purchase selected chapters from a book, or buy chapters bundled with other services or products, such as sample test questions. Those sales professionals also have to serve teachers, who can assemble a book customized for a course or who may want only online sources rather than printed materials.
Some of the requisite skills already exist inside many organizations — particularly at large enterprises. Business leaders often are surprised to discover the breadth and depth of skills available in-house. Employees can vouch for their bosses’ myopia: a little more than half — 53 percent — of Accenture’s survey respondents said their current or most recent employer documents their skills. Some 38 percent said their employers look only at specific job experience and education to match employees to jobs, rather than looking at all of their talents and capabilities. This may be why only one-third of respondents reported that it is easy to move to another job within their companies where their skills can be put to better use.
Workers must not only update their skills, they must be willing to change careers. Accenture research finds as many as 62 percent of workers have changed careers at least once to meet the demands of the job market; 35 percent said they have had to change careers at least twice. And geographic mobility will continue to be important, despite the rise of telecommuting. More than one-third — 36 percent — of workers said they would be willing to move to another location where demand for their skills is strongest or where their skills could be better utilized.
Better Ways to Obtain Skills
Companies need to get creative about meeting the skills challenge. It’s not necessarily about spending more money and time, but about changing how resources are spent. To do this, talent managers should:
Make skills requirements explicit to employees, job candidates and schools. First, document and broadly communicate a detailed view of the skills needed in different roles across the business. That helps people understand what skills they need to improve or develop to obtain and succeed in a new position.
Mine the existing workforce for hidden talent. Once employers have documented their skill needs, they should gain a detailed understanding of their employees’ current capabilities. That will serve as a fact base to design processes to support internal job mobility. Designing more flexible career paths allows companies to more easily deploy people to different roles where their skills are in demand.
Look for people who can learn quickly. One competency shown to have a high correlation with performance is learning aptitude — the ability and willingness to learn quickly. Yet, few organizations look beyond narrow skills when considering people for a role. Only 31 percent of Accenture’s survey respondents reported their employer considers all of their talents and capabilities when deciding how best to use them.
Use analytical techniques to find and cultivate talent. Companies can use analytics to pre-screen candidates using a rich array of data beyond experience and education. Competency, skills or cultural fit assessments on the front end of the screening process can all supplement an initial r?sum?-based screening. Companies can analyze data from a wide array of sources, including samples of a candidate’s actual work; scores from assessments that gauge a person’s skills, cultural fit, competencies, work motivators and interests; work competition results; and social media contributions. Some 60 percent of Accenture survey respondents said they would be willing to make such information available to potential employers, as long as it was done in a confidential and controlled manner.
Cultivate relationships with potential hires. Candidate relationship databases can enable companies to send periodic, tailored information to interested parties and create ongoing relationships that can be tapped when opportunities arise. Sixty-two percent of Accenture’s survey respondents said they were willing to engage in ongoing conversations with potential employers even if there is no current job opening.
In the current economic climate — and for the foreseeable future — it’s vital to move swiftly to close skill gaps. Talent management is becoming highly competitive. To fall behind in talent strategy is to run the risk of losing business to competitors. The day someone says there’s a talent problem is the day that rivals already will be a step or two ahead.
Susan Cantrell is a research fellow at the Accenture Institute for High Performance. Breck Marshall is executive director and North America lead for the learning and collaboration service line within Accenture Talent and Organization. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.