With a little bit of imagination employers can beat the skills shortage, writes Kevin Wheeler
Even in this recession, everyone I speak with is
moaning about not being able to find the quality
candidates they think they need. Maybe they have
caused their own problem by narrowly defining
jobs, by using yesterday’s criteria to solve today’s
problems, and by a lack of imagination.
We (hiring managers, executives, HR folks, and
recruiters) set up expectations and define jobs based on
what is traditional. We work from habit and past experi
ence. This is not necessarily bad, but may not match our cur
rent needs or the available supply.
Some of us say that we cannot find qualified C# pro
grammers, for example, when we all know that there are
very few people with good skills in this area. We are left with
choices: hunt like crazy on the internet and elsewhere to
find someone we can influence to leave their current posi
tion, wait to find a disgruntled person, or decide to do
something different. Something different might be to
rethink the job entirely so that it more closely matches
someone we already know is available. It might be to
increase the supply by developing training programs
or taking on apprentices. It might be to merge the job
with another one. There are lots of possibilities
beyond just doing what we have always done.
Many emerging jobs require a new per
spective, rather than an entirely new skill-set.
An interior designer could easily do the new
job of home stager – someone who deco
rates your house prior to selling it – but for
a much lower price. Many skills for jobs in
the health-care arena can be learned
quickly, but are all based on a common set
of skills around patient care, communica
tion, and appreciation for and under
standing of technology. The real challenge
is perspective, attitude, and, sometimes, the
willingness to work for less.
Developing people is a requirement for success
I spent many years working in the semiconduc
tor industry when it faced a labour shortage of
skilled process engineers and equipment operators. We
eventually devised training programs that took basic elec
trical engineers and developed them into capable process
engineers quickly. IBM trained thousands of programmers
throughout the 1960s and 1970s to meet its own huge
needs. At the same time, IBM and other companies quietly
worked with academic institutions to develop today’s aca
demic computer curricula.
This training and development does not have to be of
the same type that a person would receive at an ordinary
academic institution. In almost every case, corporate train
ing can concentrate on skills that are needed right now
and forgo the theoretical, the basics, and the nice-to-have-
but-not-critical things. Whether or not a person goes back
at some point to get those basics remains a question, but
I believe that efficient training can address the labour short
age issue quickly.
In both world wars, the US Armed Forces reverted to
intensive training programs to fill critical positions. They
have learned that this can be as efficient a process as hav
ing a huge standing army.
The trick is in accepting that there is a responsibility
on the part of employers to develop the people they need.
Employers should be willing to provide the training and
development for the jobs they have a need to get done.
Waiting for the school system or the government to do
your job for you has never been a very good strategy.
We need to expand the labour pool
Many available people are older or retired and have skills
that have become obsolete or are not needed right now. How
ever, these people could be retrained for some of the open posi
tions if we took a different attitude. Unfortunately most of
us, or most of our employers, anyway, would rather spend
money on search fees, agency fees, administrative overhead,
and advertising rather than on intensively training people
with decent basic skills. Granted, we cannot train people for
every job because many of them do require experience, or time
in the saddle, as they say, in order to be successful. However,
I think we could significantly lessen the labour shortage if
we were willing to be a bit wider in our job expectations and
This is why I constantly argue for integrated staffing
and development because I believe their functions are inex
tricably intertwined. It is very difficult to do one without
doing the other. If we are to look at recruiting as a process,
we are going to have to incorporate development into our
staffing thinking and staffing into our training thinking.
Whether this is done through merging departments or
whether it is done simply through good collaboration does
n’t really matter. What is critical is that there is a dialogue
between the two functions. If you work in a small company
where there are no separate training and recruiting func
tions, then this becomes even easier for you to do.
You need to always think whether an open position is
better trained for or hired for. Is it a job that would be
impossible to train someone for in a reasonable period of
time, or is it a job that someone could be trained to do
When management and recruiters both develop a
broader understanding of the issues and step up to the fact
that in many cases skilled people are just not available at
a reasonable cost, then developing people becomes sensi
ble and cost effective.
There are no labour shortages or surpluses – there are
just shortages of imagination and an unwillingness to accept
responsibility for filling our own needs.
Kevin Wheeler is the President and Founder of Global Learning Resources,
Inc., is a globally known speaker, author, columnist, and consultant in
human capital acquisition and development. GLR can be explored at