Where, Oh Where, Have My Skilled Employees Gone?

If nothing else, history offers us invaluable learning experiences. One lesson we can all agree on is that work will never be the same – too many things have changed. In one of the more radical shifts, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that more than 4.3 million people voluntarily quit their jobs in December 2021, slightly below a record high in November 2021. In addition to the holes left by regrettable deaths, many workers face serious ongoing issues with long-haul Covid-19 that may affect their full-time return to work. But have they totally disappeared from the workforce? Not necessarily.

If you are like many companies today, you are seeing a radical shift in perceptions of the world of work, a shift that is affecting your current workforce and those new employees you are attempting to hire. Following what has been referred to as the Great Migration, you may be struggling to fill positions, especially in areas such as hospitality or food services. So rather than thinking of the past few months as “The Great Quit” as some have called it, or even think of this as a migration (migrating creatures are indeed somewhere), let’s think of it as a re-scramble in the workforce.

Was the Grass Greener?

A new study from UKG points out that more than 2 out of 5 job-switchers worldwide feel they were better off at their old jobs, finding many of the same issues at their new company with none of the familiar faces and routines. In addition, one in five have already boomeranged back to their prior company, with millions more open to the possibility of return. Some 47% of U.S. job-switchers say some days they miss their old job. Of those who are not fully satisfied in their new role, 62% admit “The job I quit was better than my job now.”

What concerns HR professionals is “why did they leave us in the first place? While the UKG study has the typical “pay/compensation” as the first motivator, in second place was “I did not feel valued or that I belonged.” And while managers correctly thought compensation was the foremost motivator for leaving, the perception of being undervalued did not even appear in the top six reasons they thought their employees fled. We all know that it is the manager that is the critical lynchpin in an employee staying in a job.

The UKG report highlights the distance that remains between what the manager thinks and what the employee thinks, such as the manager’s perception of trying to retain the individual (75% of managers said they tried) to the employee’s perception—fewer than half (48%) thought their previous bosses made any effort to keep them.

This is an issue that HR professionals can certainly help address. The report also notes that globally, 2 in 5 people managers are contemplating quitting — and that number skyrockets to more than half of leaders in the U.S. and U.K. (53% each), presenting another issue for HR and recruiting professionals. Another area HR teams are well-poised to address.

(I recommend this report to HR readers: it is available at www.ukg.com).

It’s Not About Bodies. It’s Skills (Again)

A full 87% of executives in a McKinsey Global Survey said they were experiencing a skill gap in the workforce. In 2019, 83% of respondents in a SHRM survey reported that they had trouble recruiting suitable candidates in the preceding 12 months, with 75% of those being a skill shortage among their applicants. According to the 2018 World Economic Forum Future of Jobs report, 54% of all workers will need to update or replace their competencies by 2022. A Gartner study concludes that 64% of managers don’t think their employees can keep pace with future skill needs.

And the big “oops”: McKinsey also reports that while 58% of organizations analyze their skill gaps, they typically underestimate their size.

This is old news — very old news. Employers have been whining for years about a lack of skilled workers. In fact, for decades. Fear of an insufficient supply of skilled workers has haunted HR professionals for as long as I have been a market analyst, and I can only assume, long before. In the 90s I asked a group of HR professionals what kept them awake at night—you guessed it—fear of a lack of a skilled workforce to enable the company’s goals to be met. When I asked them to anticipate what would keep them awake at night in 10 years, their answer was the same: fear of an insufficient pipeline of skilled workers. However now, years later—how very few of them did anything to address the issue.

Workers Did Not Lose Their Skills During the Pandemic

Many workers used the furlough or at-home experience to beef up existing skills, complete a college degree or other work-related program; some used that time to refocus on skills or talents they really wanted to use—different from those they had applied to their previous jobs.

Re-evaluation of life goals led many to the arts, entrepreneurial endeavors, or other areas they felt more passionate about than their previous jobs. The immediate shortage of workers in areas such as hospitality and many others led to increased mobility among hourly job seekers as employers vied for workers with increased wages, better benefits, more flexibility, and better working conditions. And yes, some such as parents of young children and those close to retirement left the workforce, both voluntarily and involuntarily.

Burnout is another factor that cannot be ignored: from healthcare workers to Walmart greeters, work often became overwhelming and even dangerous. Coaxing and better and more lucrative working conditions may be required to get those disenfranchised back into the workplace—but it will be on their conditions, not yours.

The pre-pandemic skill level has not evaporated; recruiters just need to know how to find it and HR professionals and people managers need to learn how to groom and preserve it. Granted, in far too many cases the pre-pandemic skill level was less than met the job requirement—yet the question remains, what did your organization do to address that? You did, after all, have two years and counting to consider how to prepare workers for reentry, and you knew that ground rules were changing. Remote working, flexible scheduling, changing regulations (California is considering a four-day work week, e.g.), better wages and benefits, and increasing job growth opportunities all have come to play in today’s hiring and retention environment.

Workforce Planning Has Never Been More Important

According to McKinsey, 61% of HR professionals like yourselves see hiring developers as their greatest challenge. Developers are just one technical skill you need and will increasingly need in the future. Look at what we know already from the tech innovations and technical skill requirements that have emerged over the recent past. Analyzing your in-house skills today, no matter how carefully you do it, will not prepare you for the future. Further, you can’t just replace the same set of skills you have today and feel comfortable about your company’s future. Consider:

  • Cybersecurity professionals are scarce, and the need is growing exponentially: what are you doing to upskill the security talent you have and what are you doing to ensure their retention? (Just imagine what a major security breach would cost your firm in customers and reputation.)
  • Artificial intelligence abounds in the software you are acquiring—who in your organization is expert enough to understand the algorithms and ensure it is working as it should?
  • Blockchain is used as a basis for cryptocurrency—if your organization moves to crypto payments for the workforce, disintermediating banks as middlemen, do you have plans for both blockchain and crypto skill development and hiring? And don’t be smug – many see cryptocurrency replacing a payroll system’s reliance on cash and even credit/ debit cards.
    Networked iPads replaced menus in many restaurants; robots replaced pickers in warehouses – what new uses of technology are needed in your environment and are you developing the skills to manage them internally?

And whatever organization you are in, whether it be a service or manufacturing industry, you have competition for technical talent. Amazon, Google, Facebook, and others are hiring in enormous numbers, domestically and globally. You may find yourself competing with the Metaverse when you are hiring as the old reliance on local talent has changed to work anytime, anywhere.

The Starting Point: Workforce Analytics

You may analyze your skill gaps, you may analyze the skill levels of your employees today, and you may be speculating on the skills you will need tomorrow. Or you may just think you do. Which employees have learned new skills during the pandemic? What were they? How do they apply to your company? You need to find out. Rarely can HR professionals quantify the existing skill levels of an entire workforce and articulate with precision to their executives the skills needed and how to develop or hire for them.

Admittedly, this is not trivial. There are two distinctive features in play: one is interest, and the other is aptitude. Generally, we know pathetically little about either. However, we know that presenting learning opportunities to recent graduates and new hires is often critical to their accepting a position. We know that throughout an employee’s career, he or she is often motivated to stay because of the chance to learn new skills and work with different teams. If HR holds out the carrot of access to new skills, it must have a plan for delivering that carrot, be it through college or class tuition, job rotation, mentorship, or internal training opportunities.
Our second feature, though, is a little harder: aptitude for learning. Hiring managers tell me that they look for a “certain something” they often can’t put a finger on: curiosity, a creative streak, ambition to grow not just into the job at hand but beyond it. If, in fact, your workforce is with you because they know they could never get a job somewhere else, you are likely in trouble. To succeed, you need the tools at hand to ferret out your go-getters, ascertain their interests or potential to be interested in something they may not have even considered and present the opportunity to learn and grow. And while managers may look for that “certain something,” they seem remiss in fostering this mysterious something in the workplace.

Unscrambling the Scramble

Spoiler alert: this is not new news. Again, we have neglected a critical opportunity in optimal workforce planning. In my last column, I talked about creating flexible job opportunities for the women and parents who left the workforce during the pandemic or thereafter. Sometimes they needed better childcare or the flexibility to meet the school bus at 3:00. These are issues you can discuss and often address.

But here is another: Often millennials are the hiring managers and see anyone their parents’ age as too old to be in the workforce, regardless of the skills they bring. Many who retired or were furloughed really want to work; it was part of their self-identity for a considerable time and the skills and experience they can bring are not easily found. A person’s grey matter does not dry up at 65, yet hiring managers often are stuck on “how long will you stay?” Will I train you and you will leave? Are you stuck in the last century and can’t adapt to a new environment?” Consider this: you have no more assurance that your new college hire will stick with you than you do with someone older, in fact, you have less. You can better assess both aptitude and interest in the history and experiences of the more seasoned worker. You may have an instant mentor to others in the experienced individual.

The Good News

The vendors have been busy—and many companies report completing total HCM replacements with new cloud-based applications during the pandemic. Solutions from Oracle, SAP, Workday, and others have addressed the improved employee experience, providing more intuitive and interesting interfaces to users, while expanding on the provision of learning experiences and career journey support.

Products offer better, more targeted means of employee communication; new releases in talent acquisition, such as those from iCIMS, make today’s hiring challenges less onerous. The large HCM providers have indicated that record new implementations were completed during the pandemic, as fewer interruptions—such as vacationing staff—were incurred. Given this, HR professionals may well have at their fingertips— either currently or soon — tools that will surpass old technology and make acquiring and managing the workforce a lot easier.

Hi Ho, Hi Ho

Yes, it is back to work we all go carting some new baggage behind us like rolling suitcases — with fears of the skill-lingering Coronavirus, months without face-to-face colleague interactions, and maybe out-grown business attire. Think of the Big Scramble as an opportunity. Like musical chairs — you will have your employees and their skill sets in the right chairs when the music stops.

Katherine Jones, Ph.D.
High-Tech Industry Analyst| + posts

Unique as a thought leader for her ability to make theory actionable and technology comprehensible to non-technologists, Dr. Jones is a sought-after writer and speaker in the U.S. and internationally. Moving easily from the academic world to the worldwide technology stage, she has repeatedly created value propositions bridging technology and theory with the practical world of today's business. Whether working with systems integrators in the Federal arena, consultants in oil and gas, or small business owners, her clarity and wisdom – as well as her wit—has been appreciated and commended. Now an independent high-tech marketing analyst, she was previously responsible for the creation and provision of thought leadership content for a web-based membership program as a partner at Mercer and spent several years at Bersin & Associates both before and after its acquisition by Deloitte, where she was the VP heading the HCM technology research practice in Bersin by Deloitte. She became an industry analyst at Aberdeen Group in Boston, covering the ERP space, then human capital management in Palo Alto. Later, as marketing director for NetSuite, her efforts coincided with one of the more successful IPOs of that year. Before becoming an analyst, Katherine was in the Boston-area high-tech companies’ product marketing and strategic alliance management, specializing in data communications and network management. She spent several years in marketing education at a minicomputer company. She created new programs in high-tech sales and system engineer training and sold them to the Federal Government, leading a DDN certification project in the company’s Federal System Division. She had left a career in higher education administration and teaching, which included the assistant deanship in the School of Education at the University of Connecticut and responsibility for the Master of Arts in Teaching program in the English Department at Cornell University, where she was instrumental in the Improvement of Undergraduate Education project in the Provost’s office. An industry veteran and independent high-tech analyst, she is widely published on talent management and personnel-related technologies, cybersecurity, ERP and HCM systems implementations, change management, and the mid-market, totaling over 500 works in print. Her master’s and doctorate degrees are from Cornell University. She can be reached at [email protected]or @katherine_jones.

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