Closing the Skills Gap: How to Find and Develop Capable Employees

In 2018, we published an article about the skills gap in the United States – the difference between the number of unfilled positions and the number of people with the proper skills to fill those positions. This gap has continued to plague human resources specialists as they struggle to find qualified candidates for their open positions. In many cases, job seekers lack the necessary technical abilities to fulfill companies’ needs. 

tech skills gap
The growing gap in applicants technical and soft skills has employers scrambling for solutions

In The Future of Jobs Report 2020, the World Economic Forum lists the top-10 fastest emerging job roles across all industries: 

  1. Data analysts and scientists 
  2. AI and machine learning specialists 
  3. Big data specialists 
  4. Digital marketing and strategy specialists 
  5. Process automation professionals 
  6. Business development 
  7. Digital transformation managers 
  8. Information security analysts 
  9. Software and app developers 
  10. Internet of Things (IoT) specialists 

Both Technical and Soft Skills Lacking

According to the World Economic Forum, the number of candidates looking for job opportunities who possess the skills to adequately complete those job descriptions doesn’t meet the increasing needs for those roles. While that top-10 list leans heavily toward highly technical positions, studies are also showing inadequate numbers of people with experience in trades – like welding, carpentry, plumbing, and manufacturing – to meet the demand. 

Additionally, HR professionals are finding that job candidates lack the non-technical, non-professional skills they need to successfully function in the workplace. These include soft skills like communication, collaboration, problem-solving, and basic reading and writing. 

Make no mistake: no matter the industry, this skills gap can slow down any business’s growth, and ultimately contribute to its failure. 

Thankfully, by understanding the skills gap and the ways a company’s human resources department can work to address it, businesses can act to mitigate the damage caused by the skills gap, and even find ways to use it to their competitive advantage. 

Help Wanted 

According to the Society of Human Resource Management, in December 2018, 7 million positions were available and seeking applicants in the United States, but there were only 6.3 million Americans seeking work at that time. By June of 2021, the number of available open positions rose to 10 million, with the disparity between open positions and people looking to fill them expected to continue in the decades to come.  

Additionally, there’s a disparity between the skills human resource managers say they need applicants to have and the actual skills possessed by the people looking for work. In particular, among the so-called hard skills that job seekers are lacking are trade skills like carpentry and plumbing, and the skills needed to work in the data analysis, science, engineering, and medical fields.  

Though hard skills speak to a potential employee’s training and education, soft skills indicate the ability to learn, grow, and work with others in a positive capacity. Among the soft skills potential workers are most often missing are problem solving, emotional intelligence, creativity, critical thinking, and communication skills.  

What the Skill Gap Means for You 

The shortage of appropriately-skilled workers can have negative effects on your business. Obviously, there’s work to be done, and you need people with the right skills to do it.  

Though it may appear you save money by leaving a position open and not paying a salary or benefits, in reality, it actually costs more when that position goes unfilled. A popular online calculator shows that leaving an average software engineer position open for just a month and a half ends up costing a company over $5,000 more than paying a new employee to fill that job over that length of time. 

An open position stymies a company’s ability to expand, attract new customers and build on profits. That impacts a company’s financial stability over time, and the negative effects compound as the business misses out on opportunities that cost more money in the long run. 

Properly trained employees understand their value, and new generations of employees aren’t afraid to take their know-how to new opportunities. Millennial employees (people born during the 80s up to the mid-90s) are far more likely to change jobs than other age groups. Polling company Gallup reports that millennial turnover costs businesses $30.5 billion a year, in part because millennial employees are more likely to feel unengaged and unfulfilled by their work. 

Finally, remaining understaffed has a tremendous human cost. Existing employees usually find themselves spread thinly as they scramble to cover understaffing. The pressure to complete their work, while also completing someone else’s, can result in diminished productivity and increase the likelihood that existing employees leave the company. 

Then the cycle begins all over again. 

Four Ways Businesses Can Close the Skills Gap 

There are four ways businesses can address the skills gap and its impact on their existing and future workforce. A good approach is to look at the situation as an opportunity to identify, develop, and retain quality employees by initiating strategies to close the skills gap.  

Each strategy requires the organization to be forward-thinking and contemplative, while at the same time moving quickly to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. 

1. Partner With Local Schools and Training Programs

One way to improve your pipeline of properly trained job candidates is to partner with schools and trainers who teach the skills your business needs. To do this, you need to first understand specifically what sort of skills you’re looking for, and then reach out to potential partners to map out a pathway for teaching those skills. 

It’s a relationship that can benefit both the business and the school. Take, for example, Northwestern Technological Institute, an HVAC school in Southfield, Mich. They’ve partnered with businesses in Southeast Michigan to provide the training those businesses value; in return, those businesses look to hire NWTI graduates. The partnership is so successful, NWTI has created a marketing campaign that features commercials with business owners bragging about the abilities of the school’s graduates.  

Depending upon the size of your business, you may consider reaching out to educational institutions for sponsorship opportunities. Imagine a lab or a piece of equipment – technology you know your workers must understand to be successful at your business – with your company’s name plate nearby. Or consider offering a scholarship for a student studying in a program you know is valuable for your industry’s future. Not only do you help narrow the skills gap, but you generate goodwill and positive word-of-mouth for your company.  

You may also want to consider local community colleges. Their missions are often closely tied to workforce development and economic opportunity, and they are more likely to be interested in partnerships than many larger universities. Additionally, a community college typically draws students from the local area, which makes them more accessible to your business. 

2. Encourage Continued Workforce Development

Consider how your company handles employees who want to continue their training after they’ve landed a job. Businesses can offer incentives like tuition reimbursement, program completion bonuses, and salary increases for workers who achieve certain benchmarks.  

Identify local schools and trade centers that provide the sort of continued professional development your organization values. It’s likely that some of them have staff who’d be happy to visit your business to better explain the school’s programs and make enrollment easier.  

You’ll need to provide the schedule flexibility that allows your employees to succeed both at work and at school. You’ll also want to have a plan that guarantees that employees who take advantage of training opportunities will commit to serve your business for a set amount of time.  

Talk to your vendors. They may offer training programs themselves, or have insight into companies that do provide training relevant to your business concerns.  You may also consider company-wide seminars and workshops. These are especially valuable opportunities for soft skill development.  

Experts agree that cross-training employees teaches a respect for coworkers and creates a flexible staff that can better adapt to challenges. William Craig, a former contributor for Forbes, shares his belief in the importance of encouraging employee development as a way to fight boredom and stagnation, and promote innovation. It’s also a valuable tool for identifying potential organizational leaders. 

Craig explains, “While employees expect to self-learn on the job, they may feel lost about what to pursue. Cross-training will help raise team spirits and allow flexibility when employees need somebody to cover their responsibilities. It also gives employees more confidence to help their coworkers when they’re stuck on a problem.”

Each employee should have an individual development plan that takes into account his or her goals and skills. Workers who take an active role in planning their future will be more engaged in their jobs, and employers who prioritize refreshing skills and learning new ones will find that their workforce always remains up-to-date. Make a return to the plan a part of every employee’s regular performance review.  

3. Provide Your Own Training

Faced with a lack of skilled candidates to fill open positions, employers can take matters into their own hands and provide their own training programs. As Vera Song writes in her piece for EdSurge, it’s often more cost-effective for businesses to hire people who show potential and then train them than it is for the business to wait for educational institutions to provide candidates with the appropriate training and education. 

Consider asking managers for the sorts of skills your workforce is lacking, and put training into place that helps keep your workforce’s skills current. Be sure to include both soft skills and hard skills, be conscious of the differences, and ask managers specifically what your company needs.

It makes sense to train your employees on the hard skills they need to be successful as technology and processes change. After all, you wouldn’t install a new manufacturing process or implement new email software without teaching people how they work . However, the importance of soft skills training is less obvious. 

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted just how important soft skills can be. Soft skills training can increase employee productivity, boost job satisfaction, and reduce employee turnover. Improved employee adaptability helps your organization confront challenges with creative solutions. 

Within your own organization, you may find people with the necessary skills and the abilities to share them. Why not put them on track to become trainers for your business? Of course, you can always look to outside consultants and experts to provide the training your staff needs, too.  

4. Think Beyond the Usual Suspects

It’s no surprise that traditional job fairs are yielding fewer and fewer results, and that online recruiting tools can sometimes produce uneven results because, according to TechCrunch, the average online job posting receives 200 applications. That’s a lot for even the most dedicated HR specialist to wade through.  

Those recruitment sites may keep providing the same type of job candidate (or maybe even the same candidate as job seekers use multiple job-hunting sites), and it’s possible these candidates don’t quite have what you’re looking for anyway. 

Consider looking for applicants in non-traditional places. This might include querying organizations that serve a different category, such as older workers or veterans. Veterans often possess important soft skills, such as leadership and time management, that can be useful to your company. Veterans sometimes struggle as they re-enter civilian life; being a part of a veteran’s successful transition is good for them and good for your company, too. 

The Future of Work 

The relationship people have with their jobs has evolved over the last few decades. Employees have come to realize their skills are valuable, and employers have come to realize that fewer and fewer job candidates have the skills their businesses need. This has created an intricate web of pressures that can be a challenge to navigate. 

Continued efforts toward workforce development should be a priority in the business, government, and education sectors as partnerships that are socially, emotionally, and economically profitable become more valuable. A two-pronged approach that includes training in both hard and soft skills is the best way to make inroads in narrowing the skills gap. 

Bridging the skills gap is paramount in maintaining the viability of businesses in our most important industries. Success relies on the creativity of businesses and the people who work for them in solving the skills gap challenge, and by seeing new training as an opportunity to build and maintain the workforces of the future.  

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