Closing the Great Skills Divide

As the effects of the global recession linger, organizations are reporting great difficulty in finding the skills they need. The skilled talent is out there, but organizations are having trouble finding it.

One reason a mismatch has occurred is because to hold down the jobs which make up today’s knowledge-driven economy, individuals must develop not just one or two functional skills, but an increasingly diverse portfolio of skills. Assembly-line positions, such as auto production workers, for example, now require proficiencies in technology, communication and problem solving.

At the same time, take any given skill in a portfolio and chances are organizations are demanding it be more sophisticated. One-size-fits-all leadership skills, for example, no longer make the grade. In today’s global economy, successful leaders tailor their methods and styles to specific countries and cultures.

Further, in the face of fluctuating customer demand, companies can drive new products and services to market faster by tapping workers on-demand, pulling in skills wherever and whenever needed. This can be difficult in an era when competition for talent has grown not only cross-industry, but cross-border as well.

In short, finding and keeping talent is more challenging than ever. Many organizations are pursuing a strategy that involves making, buying and borrowing talent — or going beyond those three approaches. There are seven strategies available that organizations can use to close skills gaps more quickly, thus providing a competitive edge.

One: Look Beyond Specific Skills
By focusing too narrowly on specific skills, an organization may miss out on hiring top performers. Organizations may complain they can’t find someone with experience implementing a specific accounting software package, for instance, but that mindset might cause them to overlook top-performing candidates who don’t have keywords on their resume but who could readily perform the job.

By developing a more open mind, hiring managers can increase the odds of finding people who, with a little additional training, can meet a job’s highly specific skill requirements.

Another reason not to focus too narrowly on specific skills: research by organizational psychologists has shown that ability in specific skills is far less important as a predictor of performance for most jobs than broader competencies and cultural fit with the organization.

One competency shown to have a high correlation with performance is learning — for instance, aptitude. “RWE has found that to effectively close its skills gaps, one of the most important factors is to find people who are willing to learn quickly and easily,” said Stefan Niehusmann, formerly the managing director of IT service at German energy company RWE.

Therefore, the company has defined a competency — learning agility — and it measures, hires for and develops it.

Two: Mine Your Organization for Hidden Talent
Many companies are surprised to learn the skills they need already exist somewhere in their organization. Creating a database of employee capabilities is essential to mine an organization for ongoing skills, as is developing processes to support internal mobility.

At Hilton Worldwide Inc., for instance, every employee’s skills are documented, including languages, education, property experience, local market connections and affiliations with boards and nonprofits. At retailer Metro, linear career paths were replaced with a web model in which people can move up, down or laterally into different functions to foster greater talent mobility.

Other types of data beyond self-reported skills can be captured to better match talent to task. An organization could capture data through assessments regarding skills, competencies, cultural fit or learning ability, or use technology such as that developed by UpMo to capture employees’ desired work roles and locations, and the pace at which they’d like to advance.

In the future, data regarding people’s work histories — including training, compensation packages, project and work experiences, skills developed on the job and performance reviews — may become much like electronic medical records, which follow an individual from company to company, making it easier for an organization to mine employee data for skills it needs when it needs them.

Three: Use New Recruiting and Hiring Techniques
Companies no longer have to wait for talent to find them, or to search for talent only when they have openings.

Online social media sites such as BranchOut, LinkedIn and Jobvite enable firms to proactively seek, form relationships with and manage a reservoir of potential recruits, so when a company is ready to hire, it can quickly tap into a ready source of talent.

Not only does such social recruiting enable a company to significantly shorten the time it takes to close a skills gap with a new hire, but it also enables a company to mine different industries or locations where talent may be more plentiful.

Employers increasingly use these networks to digitize the word-of-mouth and person-to-person networking that traditionally enabled companies to find highly skilled talent.

In the information age, however, organizations can identify candidates based on a much wider range of information — including assessment scores, cultural fit or work competencies; work motivators and interests; social media contributions that identify expertise in particular areas; work competition results; samples of actual work; answers to biographical questions; pre-recorded videos with answers to common behavioral interview questions; and geographic preferences.

Four: Create and Leverage External Networks
Organizations are also relying on external talent networks to close skills gaps. In these networks, individuals from multiple organizations in addition to the one tapping the network do work, including vendors, consultants, freelancers and outsourcing providers.

For instance, companies can now tap talent in the cloud using Web-based offerings such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, LeadVine or Topcoder. Firms can get instant access to a vast number of flexible, skilled and cost-effective individuals who can perform work on a transactional basis.

Other firms are creating their own pool of pre-screened talent they can tap as needed on a contract basis. People in such pools are often former employees seeking greater flexibility as they enter child-rearing or retirement years. They can hit the ground running, because they already have up-to-date skills and existing networks in the company.

For example, Principal Financial has designed talent programs where retirees can work on a project-consulting basis, and YourEncore enables member companies to share a pool of retired scientists and engineers.

Five: Embed Learning Into Everyday Work
Employee development doesn’t have to consist of costly processes with long lead times. Recent off-the-shelf digital products make it easier for employees to continuously acquire skills.

Hilton’s service staff — ranging from housekeepers to desk clerks to managers — is expected to learn new technology skills. Although the company provides formal training through an e-learning facility, it relies primarily on consumer technologies for on-the-spot informal training.

For example, shared iPads allow employees with a problem to look up solutions used by other service workers that are posted on corporate versions of Facebook or YouTube — bite-sized learning applications immediately relevant to their current need.

Six: Redesign Work to Suit Existing Skills
When AltaMed Health Services, a community health center in California, couldn’t recruit enough registered nurses, it redesigned its jobs to concentrate the most highly skilled portion of the work into a smaller number of critical jobs.

Instead of having registered nurses interact directly with patients, AltaMed placed them in leadership and teaching roles to oversee licensed vocational nurses and certified medical assistants — positions that require less training and skill, and for which there is a greater supply of talent.

Alternatively, work can be redesigned so there is more flexibility in how skills are deployed. People can be moved around from project to project based on rapidly changing business needs instead of on the notion of who is “owned” by a part of the organization.

Seven: Create Transparency
To develop the skills organizations need, employees must know what those skills are and when and where they are needed. However, only 49 percent of the 1,088 U.S. workers surveyed in a 2011 Accenture Skills Gap Survey agreed their organizations provided clear visibility into skills required in different roles and career paths. Further, only 20 percent of workers reported that they developed new skills in the past five years based on the needs of the job market, and only 28 percent understood the skills required in their chosen career when they embarked on it.

To solve this dilemma, not only are leading companies posting jobs on a centralized site along with behaviors and skills, but they’re increasingly providing more visibility into work by offering realistic job previews, video tours, simulations of actual work and video interviews of employees describing their work.

L’Oreal’s Brandstorm program, for example, allows people to compete in teams to help them assess and try out their potential marketing skills. Many organizations now work with educational institutions to communicate their skill needs and to provide input into curricula.

These seven strategies can help organizations close their most daunting skills gaps. Whether it’s broadening their view beyond specific skills, mining talent hidden in the organization, tapping external talent through creative means or leveraging external talent networks, these strategies can help organizations achieve a true talent advantage.

Catherine Farley and David Smith are managing directors in the Accenture Talent and Organization practice. Susan Cantrell is a research fellow at the Accenture Institute for High Performance. Cantrell and Smith are co-authors of Workforce of One: Revolutionizing Talent Management Through Customization. They can be reached at