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Oct 15, 201901:15 PMMaking Madison

with Buckley Brinkman

An abundance mindset is part of our workforce problem

A critical switch is underway. Our future depends less on great answers for the skills gap and more about effective solutions to the looming body gap. Wisconsin does a terrific job addressing the skills gap — arguably better than any other state — but it won’t be enough to foster future economic growth. The demographics are overwhelmingly against us and are causing a stagnation in workforce growth — a stagnation that will last for at least two decades.

Rebekah Kowalski of the Manpower Group reminded me again at the NIST MEP Summit last month that we must switch our workforce strategy. Rebekah crystalized the issue perfectly when she said, “We approach our workforce with an abundance mindset even though we live in an era of scarcity.” She’s right. We manage our workforce like a disposable asset: If one employee doesn’t work out, we’ll go find another one. We would never tolerate a wasteful approach like this in other areas of our operation.

In fact, when making investment decisions, machines have the upper hand over workers. Companies throughout the state are running decades-old equipment. They make ongoing investments in maintenance and upgrades to keep those machines running. Contrast that to many companies’ workforce approaches where longer-term employees are shed because they are seen as more costly and less flexible than their younger counterparts. They take the approach that there is always someone better available — an abundance mindset.

But now there’s no one else available.

A thriving talent ecosystem demands tighter cooperation. In an era of abundance, companies could go it alone. Now, it’s critical to collaborate to build an ecosystem that develops our talent and keeps skills up to date — especially in an era of exponential change. The alliances we built to address the skills gap must be broader and more flexible to engage across companies, education, government, and even economic development organizations. These alliances can build focus and leverage critical resources across a broader base.

This era also requires us to rethink our hiring approaches. We hire for skills with a mindset of abundance — the person with the relevant experience and practical talent to fill specific slots. Over time, we tighten those skills requirements, often to the point where incumbents wouldn’t qualify for their own jobs. This time of scarcity requires a change in this approach. Now, we must hire for fit and potential, then develop the skill set necessary for the job. After all, it’s much easier to teach skills than culture.

All of this change also requires employers to be much more in tune with external trends to identify growing and declining jobs. Taking this outward view can reveal development opportunities where employees can bridge out of those disappearing jobs into roles that are more in demand. Kowalski provided a concrete example where an employer takes a payroll specialist (declining job) and develops him or her into an accounting clerk (less declining job) through to a financial analyst (growing job). This bridging requires more creativity and creates new talent pools.

It’s time to shift from an abundance to a scarcity mindset when considering our workforce. Workers are in short supply, so let’s act that way! We need to modify and broaden our approaches to the way we engage and develop our workforce. These new approaches will create a new talent abundance of productive employees ready for the future.

It’s a new era creating new opportunities for companies to make new advances. Broader workforce strategies will create new talent pools in unexpected places. We have the opportunity to change the body gap into a modern workforce excited about the future. Can we make the shift?

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About This Blog

Buckley Brinkman is executive director and CEO of the Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing & Productivity and writes about the manufacturing sector in Greater Madison and throughout Wisconsin. He has a breadth of experience in helping companies drive growth, world-class competitiveness, and performance excellence, and has led efforts to save dozens of operations in the U.S. by finding new ways for them to compete. A Wisconsin native, Brinkman holds a business degree from the University of Wisconsin and an MBA from the Harvard Business School.

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