How to Fill Skill Shortages

The mantra for the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st was to “hire for attitude and to train for skill.” And that’s still good advice. If you have to make a choice, then you should always go for attitude. That’s because it is much harder to change it than it is to reskill people.

That said, skills are becoming more important than ever as the shortage of them begins to bite. Notwithstanding that this problem existed before the pandemic, the shift to working-from-home has made it necessary for more people to have the technology, as well as the skills to use it than ever before; and those that have managed to get by without it thus far will now find that they no longer have that “luxury”.


Skill vs experience

In the past, the choice seemed to be between attitude and skill, though nowadays it seems to be more about skill vs experience. The two may go hand-in-hand, but not necessarily. Many people have learned new skills from home using online resources, but haven’t yet had jobs where they could gain experience.

There are others - think retirees, for instance - who have skills they’ve developed in life that your organization needs, but which can’t be categorized under a particular job title or employer. You shouldn’t discount what they can do because of that.


Education, or the lack thereof

Education is valuable, and if the employees you want have it, then that’s great; but the lack of them should never be a barrier to prevent someone from getting an interview or a job if they possess the skill to do the work. This is why interviews should include an exercise that requires the candidate to actually perform the kind of work they’d be expected to do on the job.

Microsoft, for instance, may ask an interviewee to write code on the spot. That’s what you’d expect programmers to do as employees, so why not have them do it in the interview?

You have to set aside “old-fashioned” ideas about what makes people qualified to work for you. More than anything, what matters is whether or not they can do the work; not their credentials. And so when you look for existing skills irrespective of their qualifications, you greatly expand the number of potential employees available to you.


Employees must add value

Employees need to understand the business of the organization, how to manage themselves, as well as others, and possess the skills necessary to add value to the organization. This includes personal and professional goals. The ability to add value comes from understanding how the work they do fits into the giant organizational wheel that makes it turn. To look at this another way, they must be able to grasp why they, and the jobs they do, matter.


What do you want?

In order to fill your skill shortages, you need to identify specifically the skills you lack now and in the foreseeable future. In other words, you have to know what you’re looking for. It’s not enough to say that you’ll know it when you see it. If you can’t articulate what you lack, then you’ll never be able to satisfy that want.

When you know what you want, then it’s time to actively seek ways to fill those shortages within your workforce.


Suggestion 1: Outsourcing

One way to supplement your workforce with the skills you need is by using temporary workers. Indeed, this is how Japan was able to compete so effectively with America in the years prior to the dissolution of the psychological contract at the end of the 1970s and early 1980s. In fact, it was this technique which ultimately brought about the end of the unwritten understanding between employers and employees.

At that time, Japan’s culture dictated that men held the permanent positions, while women held the temporary ones. When companies needed to expand their workforce, they hired more woman to fill the needed temporary jobs. When the jobs were no longer needed, the women were laid off.

In the West, a similar principle has been followed, though not along gender lines. In principle, outsourcing - passing the job to an independent worker, rather than employing the worker to do the job - gave your non-core work to someone whose core business was the thing that you wanted to outsource. (Core business is what your customers buy from you.)

For example, if you were an HR company, then HR was your core business; but if it wasn’t, then you might outsource that activity to someone for whom HR was their core business.

Whether organizations have retained non-core work in-house or not has ebbed and flowed over the years. Recent events suggest that it’s something that you at least ought to consider in the short term so that you can bridge the gap in skills you already have. And as long as people can work from home, then the field of possible candidates is even larger because there’s no reason to expect those who do the work you outsource to live within some predetermined distance of your organization.


Suggestion 2: Multi-skilling

Multi-skilling is another way to fill gaps. It’s just good management, too. As many of your employees as possible should be able to do more than one thing, if only so that that job continues to be done if the primary person gets sick. It’s worth noting that, despite media reports to the contrary, there are many more illnesses and viruses than COVID-19. And so you must afford people the opportunity to become skilled in many things.

The military does this. There are at a lot of positions that are filled during peacetime, but which become less important during a war; and it’s then that people adopt their secondary role in order to join the fight. The Reserves and the Territorial Army, for example, consist of people who have civilian employment most of the time.

Who do you have in your “Reserves” that you can “call up” for more important work when the need arises?


Suggestion 3: Reskill or retrain, whichever you prefer

The penny has been shaken and may be about to drop. Managers are beginning to realize that they need to focus on reskilling the people they have rather than trying to rely on a pool of people who already have those abilities and from which they can hire. That’s because there aren’t enough to go around.

Curriculum design is a skill all its own. Post-graduate degrees are offered in it at prestigious universities, so it’s no slouch undertaking. Indeed, notwithstanding Shaw’s infamous quip about teaching, teachers, in fact, make all other professions possible. This has placed a renewed emphasis on learning and development, something for which the HR function has been pleading for decades.

Few organizations, however, possess the internal expertise required to create the materials that will enable others to reskill, and they know it. That means that you as a manager need to engage those who are experts in retraining so that you can develop your employees as quickly as possible.

Those organisations which have undertaken learning and development programs in this respect have already noticed that the return has exceeded their investment.

There’s more to reskilling than filling a skills shortage, however. It also increases job satisfaction, which is known to motivate people. That’s because employees are able to perform better, which enhances their annual reports and promotion prospects.


How to identify skill gaps

A good place to start looking for gaps in organisational skills is to project your imagination a little way into the future and to ask yourself what skills you’d like to hire for. Then ask yourself who in your organization at present you could reskill. Talk with them about the possibility, and then find a way to do it.

You may not be able to retrain everyone you’d like to, but it’s a start, and a much less expensive one than trying to hire more people, especially at a time when the competition for those who are available will be keener than it is now.


It’s worth remembering that it’s vital that as you reskill people, you also afford them opportunities to put their new skills into practice. The failure to practice anything new will result in forgetfulness. Not only that, but when you prevent people from applying what they learn, you discourage them from taking any future opportunities seriously. Instead, all such exercises will be interpreted as box-tickers - things which look good on paper, but which accomplish nothing.


Organizational structure

You may need to change the structure of your organization to accommodate the new skills. In fact, it’s probably inevitable.

Plan for that.

Don’t try to put a high-end car in a barn designed for sheep.

As job descriptions change, so will the relationship the employees have with the various sections of the organization where they work. The structure will need to facilitate all cross-functional and team-based activities.


Leadership and management skills

Part and parcel of retraining to fill skill shortages is to retrain managers on how to manage the employees.

When there’s a skill shortage - and it’s going to get worse - it’s imperative that managers know how to treat people in a way that will make them want to stay with the organisation. It’s well known, for instance, that one of the primary reasons why employees change jobs is because they don’t like their supervisors. If you’re already struggling to find the talent that you need, then it’s common sense to do all you can to hold onto the people you have.

This is an area that managers don’t understand very well. Far too many think that you hold onto people with higher salaries and bonuses. Those things are expected by people who have the skills, but by themselves will not aid in retention.

Another given, however, is that supervisors are expected to treat them with respect and dignity, and that they’ll value the work that they do. In the absence of those things, employees won’t hang around - no matter how much money they’re paid.


Exit interviews

All exit interviews should include a discussion of the role that supervisors played in the decision that employees took to leave your organization. One disgruntled person isn’t a trend, but if several refer to the same thing, then you know that you have a problem on your hands.

One way to avoid this scenario is to include the strength of the relationship between managers and their direct reports in any performance evaluations. If there are no consequences for treating subordinates badly as long as the job gets done and targets are met, then you shouldn’t be surprised when employees leave.


To sum up . . .

Skill shortages are something that you’re going to have to learn to live with. That means that you have to be creative in how you fill them.

It you choose what seems to be the easiest path, then you’ll have an inordinate amount of competition. That’s because everyone else will be doing it, too. But if you choose what is most effective, whether it’s easy or not, then you’ll be able to stay ahead of the competition.


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