Friday, March 20, 2015

The Real Skills Gap

By Patrick Weber, MESA International Technical and Education Committee member

There’s been a great deal of discussion in industry press about a growing skills gap – typically focused on technical skills but occasionally on leadership skills as well. The March 16th issue of Crain’s Cleveland Business had a front page article on manufacturing leaders nearing retirement; “Who”, they ask, “will run the manufacturing industry when the generation in charge eventually walks away?” The US Chamber of Commerce Foundation published a 2014 white paper entitled “Managing the Talent Pipeline: A New Approach to Closing the Skills Gap” which paints a dire picture of talent systems that are not keeping pace with economic requirements, and manufacturers who struggle to find the skills they need in the job market as talent nears retirement.

Peter Cappelli of The Wharton School skewers the current understanding of “Skills Gap”. His 2012 book “Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It” debunks the mythology of technical skills gaps, and states the problem really lies within the systems used to acquire talent. The April 2014 issue of Inc magazine contains an article entitled “Why the Skills Gap ‘Crisis’ Is Overblown”, offering further evidence that the skills gap isn’t as great as we’ve been led to believe. Interestingly, both sides of this argument focus on management systems to resolve the issues around acquiring needed skills.

To me, this suggests a very different kind of skills gap – the skills around strategic planning and management. I recently attended the Siemens/Electro-matic “Manufacturing in America” Symposium where one of the seminars was focused on acquiring and maintaining technical expertise. A slide shown during this session depicted one company’s skills gap analysis, with large deficiencies over a broad range of skills. This left me wondering if the company’s leadership had a clear understanding of the skills required to operate their business. But acquiring people for skilled trades and keeping skills current is just one symptom. On March 13th, iBASEt’s Conrad Leiva posted a blog noting a disconnect between Manufacturing Operations Management strategy and challenges. He cited a recent LNS Research study, and observed a mismatch between respondent’s stated objectives and the business challenges they are experiencing – and recommends a realignment of objectives to address challenges rather than a myopic focus on cost & quality.

In his book “Good to Great”, Jim Collins notes that Level 5 leaders “look out the window to apportion credit…they look in the mirror to apportion responsibility”; perhaps it’s time for corporate leaders to look in the mirror to address the skills gap they may find there.

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