Skills for a Skills Crisis

Monday, September 1, 2008 - 09:52

With the skills shortage likely to be an issue for some time, organisations must set up strategies to follow to meet the challenge. Nicholas Currie goes in search of expert help.

If you've sneaked a peek at the job ads recently, you'll understand the predicament for somebody like John Shaw.

Shaw is the Managing Director of SolidTech Engineering Services and recently went looking for a new senior engineer. He wanted someone well qualified with a minimum of five years' experience in fairly specific areas, capable of taking on an immediate leading role in company projects.

The problem Shaw found is that a manager can no longer simply advertise a position description and select the best talent from a strong pool of candidates to grow the business. We are in a time when qualifications and experience are more important than ever, but increasingly difficult to find, and even less affordable. The challenge is to design a framework that puts together a team of people capable of identifying how to meet your staffing needs.

With this in mind, Management Today sat down with several recruitment, training and human resource-management professionals to nut out some solutions to the specific problems of recruitment and retention.

Problem: Who do you employ when none of the applicants have the right skills and experience?
Solution: Develop people strategies.

Frances Avenell, Director for Integrated People Strategies Australia, says that recruitment starts with the overall business strategy, and a people strategy flows directly from that.

"What does the business want to achieve?" she asks. Building your team begins with identifying the different roles that are necessary to achieve the business goals. Then analyse each individual role.

"What does the business need in terms of that particular role? What sorts of behavioural qualities are requirements for success?" Avenell asks. "Think about the job and identify the critical success factors for that job."

Does this person need strong attention to detail, creative flair or the ability to work for long periods without supervision? Answering these types of questions creates a template from which you will be able to recognise the right applicant when you start interviewing, even if they don't have the right experience.

Covering letters and the resume can tell you a lot more than just the applicant's job-related experience. Avenell advises employers to look out for clues as to how well the candidate's natural behaviour matches the critical factors that you have identified for the role. She went through this process recently herself.

"One of the graduates I employed didn't have some of the technical capabilities I wanted, but her cover letter spoke to me about her behavioural competencies. There were sentences that suggested a strong work commitment, follow through and innovation. Naturally, I needed to quantify those things through the interview and psychological assessment process. But to select the best person for the role, I've had to be willing to grow her technical capabilities," says Avenell.

Strategies like a simple mentor program can then work to ensure the skills you have at a senior level flow down to the next working generation. It is a slower process than buying skills off the shelf, but there's a financial benefit too. You don't have to pay cadets as much, and through that process you'll build towards long-term success.

Problem: I can't compete with the mines.
Solution: Prepare to be flexible.

Hays Recruitment Regional Director for South Australia, Lisa Morris, points out that companies are literally in a bidding war for the best talent, but says you shouldn't think you can only bid with cash. It may well be possible to trump the salary card by adjusting your employment conditions to suit an applicant's personal goals and lifestyle needs.

She says organisations that can't match the large corporate packages need to promote themselves as a positive alternative. While some candidates want to work for large corporate organisations, it's important to recognise there are plenty who don't.

To find the best possible candidates for your team, you must identify how your position differs from other company's, so you attract applicants who specifically want to be part of your organisation. Such candidates are also more likely to stay longer.

For example, some candidates jump at jobs that let them pick up the children from school at 3pm, then log in from the home office for two more hours once the children are in bed. Or you might be offering the close, well-knit team environment of a family business that some applicants prefer instead of dealing with the office politics of larger firms.

Culture and attitude

HR Outsourcing Director, Tanya Perry, says employees look at culture and attitude in companies as a key criteria when choosing where to work.

"They are seeking positive environments where they can develop personally and have lifestyle flexibility with their career," says Perry. "And, if they are the best people to take your organisation forward, you want them to choose you.

"Find out what's important to your preferred candidate. Try and find a way to offer it to them. If they want to extend their studies, or work a 38-hour week in four days then take three-day weekends, offer to make it possible. Even if they want to take annual trips to Ethiopia doing volunteer work for World Vision, you can become their preferred employer by simply encouraging them. If you do, you'll leapfrog every competing employer."

The clear social trend is that applicants want to fit their career into their life, not have to adjust their lives around work. The organisations successfully meeting their recruiting targets are the innovative ones making this possible.

Morris cites an example of two potential employers who were competing for the same candidate. One employer played an ace salary card that the second couldn't match. "Rather than trying to compete on salary," Morris says, "the second organisation won the candidate by thinking outside the square, being innovative and flexible and making best use of the tools they had to work with."

A second element to this desire for flexibility is a shift towards long-term recruiting strategies.

Julie Kerin, Managing Director of HB Recruitment Training, says the scarcity of qualified and experienced candidates is forcing employers to start looking at the pool of candidates not just to find the ideal person right now, but to look for candidates who can grow into a role.

"My recruiting consultants are saying that qualifications aren't nearly as important as they used to be. If you've got the right attitude these days, that counts for so much more. You can train the skills if you've got the right attitude and work ethic there," says Kerin.

"A lot of employers are finding generation Y quite difficult to deal with as far as their work ethic goes. People will say to us, ‘If you can find the right person with the right attitude we'll take them and get them trained'."

Morris agrees. "A lot of clients that I speak with would trade skills for team fit and cultural fit."

"The majority of managers now state that attitude and fit with the culture is most important, because you can't train and develop that," adds Tanya Perry.

An old, familiar strategy is also starting to emerge from the fog. New recruits who lack some skills will benefit from mentoring relationships. As a medium- to long-term team strategy, ask senior staff to take a position of responsibility in helping to train the inexperienced staff.

"Mentoring can be extremely effective as it builds internal networks, good culture and facilitates communication within the organisation," Kerin explains.

Problem: I try to be flexible and train my staff, but then they want to move on.
Solution: Provide opportunities.

"Employees usually don't leave a position because of money, they leave because of poor leadership and the feeling of being undervalued," Kerin says. Employees want to feel significant. They are usually willing to work hard for an organisation, but expect reciprocal opportunities for growth and advancement. Sometimes they just want to be consulted about the way the business operates.

In particular, staff who feel locked into stagnant roles will look for other options.

An effective solution is to look for unused potential. Identify staff who are looking for more challenges, then form them into a project team to tackle a business challenge. Acknowledge individual abilities beyond their day-to-day tasks and ask them to help develop solutions to bigger problems. Give them some resources, a budget and some time every week to contribute beyond their own cubicle.

Frances Avenell says this strategy is working in several businesses she's familiar with, both to invigorate staff and develop new solutions for the business. Sometimes, this unearths hidden talents.

"I have seen companies creating roles to suit people they are impressed with," Avenell says. "That's very positive because the business is looking at what they need and how that person can add value. Then it's working around that person's key capabilities to design a role that will assist the business, but also empower that person," she says.

Relevant qualifications and experience are attracting such a premium price in the employment market that it's critical to be innovative with your strategies to find and secure the best talent available. Providing opportunities for your team has become an integral part of seizing your own.

Remember John Shaw and his problem? While that's not going away in a hurry, staff at SolidTech Engineering Services now include two cadets and a graduate engineer. "Provided you get the right person, you can make a junior employee, such as a cadet, just as profitable as a regular employee," Shaw says. "They don't come with baggage from a previous employer and it's much easier to equip them with the skills you want. They'll be very valuable to us."