Who Should Identify and Develop the Non-College Workforce?

On some occasions I have mentioned that companies that need blue-collar workers are in a tough spot. Their jobs are not very sexy to the millennial or Gen Z workforces who prefer tech jobs.  Also, because lifetime wages are significantly higher for jobs that require a bachelor’s degree, parents and high school students tend to have a much more favorable attitude towards going to college than training in a vocation, which is reflected in college application statistics.  We are currently in the midst of low unemployment which makes recruitment for blue collar jobs even more difficult.

Companies should think about this as a long-term, rather than an immediate, issue.  This article talks about how some firms are dipping into high schools to begin identifying students who might not desire (or be qualified for) 4 additional years of school and providing them with what used to be called vocational training.

Of course, if a specific company or industry designs the career education programs (read: vocational), there is a danger of the training being too narrow.  However, no public school in its right mind would ever turn down private money that helps kids get jobs.  And we don’t seem to have a problem with it at the college level where business schools take money (and input) from big employers and provide the students with internships.

The economy goes in cycles and it is not a matter of if, but when, the economy slows and there won’t be the same worker shortage.  However, the trend towards more interest in college and tech jobs will continue for the foreseeable future.  This means that employers of skilled, but not college educated, workers will have to find more ways to create a larger labor pool to find the talent they need.  They can do this by:

  • Aligning with local high schools and community colleges to create curriculum that is broad enough that provides students with career options, but specific enough to allow for an easy transfer from school to the employer.
  • Gauge the interests of students as they enter the program. Interest inventories are an under-utilized selection tool.  This is especially true for entry level employees.  If I’m not interested in social activities, I probably should not be on the wait staff at a restaurant, even if I need the money.  But, if I’d rather work with things than people, then becoming a welder might be up my alley. Validating these types of tests can be a good way to predict potential success by placing students in areas where they are more likely to do well.
  • Provide lifetime learning programs. One thing we know about millennials and Gen Z is that rewarding them for learning is a powerful incentive. Companies should show new recruits all of the opportunities they could potentially have, not just the ones in their trade.

Companies that need skilled blue-collar workers can no longer passively expect a deep talent pool to be available.  Rather, they should take action to identify and develop potential employees.  This will require partnerships, better pre-employment screening, and having developmental programs.  It may not solve the immediate problem, but it will ensure that they have the necessary talent in the future.

Ways That We Punish, Rather Than Coach, Poor Performers

During the 4th of July holiday, I was binge watching an Australian cooking competition show with my family. It was pretty mindless and entertaining stuff. The gist of each episode was that contestants competed in a theme-based challenge. One was selected as the best for the day. Two others were deemed the poorest performers and then they competed to stay on the show. What I found most interesting was that they task they were given to avoid elimination (getting fired) was harder (by design) than the original one.

Of course, there is not necessarily a straight line to be drawn between entertainment shows and the work place. But this did get me thinking about how we develop poor performers. While it seems intuitive that resources spent on improving their performance would have a significant return-on-investment, data show that high performers generally benefit more from training than low ones do.

HR needs to consider how to develop all levels of talent. With the current low unemployment rates, companies are losing some of their control over their talent levels, especially now there is more job hopping. There are a few considerations in developing low performers:

• Are you rewarding progress until the person is capable of delivering results? The key here is that improving performance requires changes in behavior. If they are reinforced, the new behaviors are more likely to be learned. Telling people “try harder” or dangling a future carrot are not good strategies for improving performance.

• Are they sufficiently skilled in the tasks you expecting them to do? Before concluding that the person is not going to be a good employee, be sure that they have the basic skills/experience to perform the job. You should not expect someone to be a pastry chef if s/he does not know how to make a cake. This is where valid pre-employment testing programs are valuable.

• Are there other areas of the business that appeal more to their interests? I have a client that staffs its own call center. They have higher than average turnover in the call center, but somewhat lower in the company overall, because after people spend 6 months there they can bid for any other open position in the company for which they are qualified. Allowing easy lateral transfers helps you keep good employees who may just be in jobs they do not find engaging.

Low unemployment rates mean that new talent is going to be more expensive. It may indicate a good return-on-investment in developing under-performing talent than usual. However, getting people in the right place and having alternate reward strategies are essential to getting the most out of their development.

Can Robots Reduce Turnover By Making Work More Interesting for People?

Lower unemployment rates mean that many industries, including hospitality, need ways to attract and retain more talent. Higher minimum wage laws in many states and cities have likely encouraged people to stay in jobs they may have previously left. But, what about using automation to get them to stay?

The typical assumption is that automation leads to fewer workers, which makes sense in many cases. The cotton gin took people out of the fields and it does not take as many people to put together a car now as it did 30 years ago. What automation also does is offload boring tasks so that people can do more interesting work. We see that in offices (no longer lots of people mindlessly typing memos all day) and now we are seeing a bit of it in the hospitality sector. Granted, most of the turnover in restaurants is due to still crappy pay and low benefits. But an employer quoted in the article thinks that it is partly due to the work itself (note, I was unable to find another dataset that confirmed this, but it makes for an interesting argument). From this perspective, a restaurant can provide more value to the employee (and, presumably the customer) by having that person deliver food instead of taking orders (which customers are doing themselves from kiosks or smart phones). Perhaps these are both minimum wage tasks and the former is more interesting for the worker than the latter.

The idea of reducing turnover by making the work more interesting goes back to the 1970’s. It is pretty simple: Most people do not want to do boring and repetitive tasks and they will be more satisfied and engaged with their work (e.g., more likely to stay) if it is not mundane. This is not rocket science. However, giving people more tasks and more autonomy may also require a different skill set. Where employers who choose this approach (either through job redesign or automation) miss the boat is when they implement these changes without considering whether employees have the skills sets necessary.

Most organizational change efforts I have observed save the planning for new selection systems or training until the end (if they are thought of at all). For instance, if I have always asked workers to follow one single process but now I am giving them the autonomy to override it, I need to understand that these are two different sets of performance expectations. If you asking for new behaviors from those in a job title, you need to be sure you are hiring people with those abilities using validated tests and/or provide them with proper training.

Can Tech, Workers, and Burgers Co-Exist?

One purpose of technology is to make labor more efficient. This was not news to the inventor of the first wheel or the latest and fastest micro-chip. Western society has been pretty comfortable with this because it really makes things go faster and has eliminated some very physically demanding jobs. Of course, tech also creates higher paying jobs (though not as many) than the ones that get replaced. But, where do customers draw the line?

This article describes the effect that tech is having on McDonalds. Note that this is the only description of the issue I’ve seen online, so I’m a bit skeptical of the premise that this is the reason people are quitting work at McDonalds at higher rates than before, especially considering the low unemployment rate. There are those who think that this kind of automation is being driven (or at least accelerated) by local minimum wage increases. However, automation has always been designed to reduce labor, so that’s not a big surprise.

Yet, Walmart is appearing to be having the opposite experience with tech in its stores. I think the big difference is that the impact of the technology there is to allow employees to focus on what they already do well rather than leading to a change in necessary skill sets.

New tech always has growing pains and I am sure that fast-food chains will get this figured out pretty quickly. The bigger questions to me are:

1) Whether they will understand that they have changed the cognitive complexity of the jobs, and therefore need to change their hiring practices.

2) If service is really part of the equation for fast food customers.

When you change tech in any job, you need to change organizational behavior to adapt. Part of this equation is training, but the other half is ensuring that your selection systems are still valid. This change has led to an increase in behaviors such as quickly shifting between ways people can order while maintaining attention to detail. This requires a somewhat different skill set than handling one order at a time using one process. The tech won’t work as well if you do not have the people who can run it correctly.

As for the second question, the U.S. economy is filled with examples of service employees going away. Whether it was the transition away from pumping your own gas to checking out your own groceries, we are pretty good at serving ourselves. This leads me to believe that the increasingly automated fast food restaurant will be here more quickly than you think.

How Committed Are You to Developing a Skilled Workforce?

The economy is in a unique position right now. Unemployment is at the lowest rate this century as is the net migration rate. This leaves employers of a skilled workforce in the position of a smaller pool of candidates in general and likely one that contains fewer people with the talents they are looking for.

When more the jobs in the country were in the industrial sector (and there was a higher participation in private sector unions), management and labor worked out apprentice programs. This allowed lower skill workers to obtain the knowledge and skills for jobs over time. It also required the companies to really think about how they wanted the work done and train people accordingly.

The knowledge and service economy (along with companies’ willingness to expand/contact their head counts and greater employee mobility) has ground the apprentice approach to a near halt. People are more willing to skip from job to job to gain skills and employers are less leery of candidates who have multiple firms on their resumes. This gives hiring companies less control of the skills of the people they are hiring. I was considering these ideas when I read this article about Kaiser Permanente breaking ground its own medical school.

Kaiser’s jump into medical education can be taken in several ways, but the one that interests me the most is that a very large player in a big industry (health care) has gone to another big industry (medical schools) and said, “You all are behind the times in providing us workers and we think we can do it better.” It would be like a software company offering degrees in computer science (I think I just gave Amazon an idea!). This is potentially a disruption of a 300 year old model of providing workers.

The investment Kaiser is making is large, but they obviously see the benefit is even bigger in the quality of their doctor labor pool. I would think that if this foray is successful that they would open schools for other professions where they hire a lot of people (e.g., nursing).

The question for other business sectors is this: If your pool of available skilled talent is getting smaller, what are you doing to do to ensure you have access to it in the future? Are you going to poach from competitors or are you planning on creating your own talent pipeline?

I get that the investment in training is high and has its risks (I don’t want to spend a lot of money investing in people just to see them leave). However, it provides you the opportunity to develop the right skills and create the culture you want. It seems like money well spent.

Is Taking a Pulse Too Invasive?

Corporate culture is a tricky thing. It develops over time, but we want to change it quickly when it suits us. The business media is replete with examples of great (100 best places to work!) and toxic (see Uber, supposedly) places to work. If your job is to influence those cultures, where do you start?

I am very big on measurement in the workplace. Whether it is testing for job candidates, evaluating job performance, or surveying employee engagement. So, I was interested to read about startup software tools that provide for spot surveys and compliance measures. The appeal of these is clear. Real time data can lead to real time solutions. But, are these really ways to improve culture or just faster methods of applying band-aids?

Culture evolves whether you want it to or not. Companies that actively manage employee engagement can use it as a strategic and recruiting advantage. The constant use of software to measure culture strikes me as a reactive approach. It can lead companies to chase small problems (“Why has turnover ticked up in Pat’s area?”) instead of focusing on larger ones (“What are we doing to ensure that all of our best employees want to stay?”). Also by constantly measuring engagement we are affecting it, but probably not in the way we want to be (“Why are we constantly being asked for our opinion? Doesn’t management know what’s happening here?”).

I would suggest a thoughtful approach where you ask what you want your culture to be. You can take a baseline measure and then take steps to close any gaps (hint—be sure that senior executives are modeling and talking about the culture you are trying to achieve). Then see if closing any of those gaps affects measures of engagement (turnover, absenteeism, productivity, etc). Keep focusing on what has impact and put aside what doesn’t. Wash, rinse, repeat. This replaces a “whack-a-mole” approach with a more strategic one that does not require constant surveying.

Senior executives should have a “pulse” on the organization, but they should not have to be constantly asking “are we there yet?” like an 8 year old in the back of a car. If you approach employee engagement strategically, you can manage better and not be so invasive.

Accountability, Fear, and Changing a Culture

Uber finds itself in the news for lots of reasons, not all of them good.  The most recent story concerns the firing of 20 employees for a variety of bad behaviors to show that they were being held accountable for their actions.  I am not so concerned with whether this was a good move as much as if it will lead to change.

Certainly, the publicness of the firings meant that they were done as a message to Uber employees and the investment community.  It says, “Yes, we hear you about our culture and we are doing something about it.”  What it doesn’t say is, “You have been rewarding our CEO who does the same things, but we are not so sure what to do about that.”

Firing a bunch of people does not improve a company’s culture, even if it was the right decision.  Rather, it instills fear.  And while it may convey a message of what will not be tolerated, the action does not reinforce any positive behaviors that senior management would like to see.  It is almost like sentencing people to hang by the neck until they cheer up.

Uber has grown their business by the asking for forgiveness rather than permission.  That type of a model, by definition, rewards people for bending the rules to the extreme.  Their challenge is how to continue with a culture based on disrupting the status quo but respects the people who support it.  That will require threading a pretty small needle.

Changing a culture requires time and consistency.  Management needs to look at every aspect of its people processes (recruiting, hiring, onboarding, training, compensation, performance management, and succession planning) and ask, “Have we put in the right incentives and are we modeling the correct behaviors for a sustainable culture?”  Cultures do not happen overnight and they do not change after a few heads roll.

Another Step Towards Engaging Millennials

When writing previously about employee engagement, I discussed how companies can encourage employees to be engaged by taking steps to connect them with the organization.  We also know that, as a group, millennials tend to look for ways to connect with their employers and co-workers in ways that go beyond whatever product or service they are delivering at work.

This article describes a start-up that provides experiences for groups of employees to help encourage engagement in a way that is enticing to millennials.  This includes unique experiences they can together and being involved in community service.

Of course, this type of thing is not brand new.  Companies have been involved with stalwart social service organizations like United Way and Red Cross for many years.  But, I think it is fair to say that millennials are looking for something a bit more active than fundraising and giving blood (both worthy endeavors, by the way).

Companies do not need to outsource their engagement activities and management can brainstorm things that would appeal to their employees and fit with their culture.  But, this does show how companies are trying to get younger workers more engaged by experiencing intrinsic rewards (feelings of accomplishment) rather than extrinsic ones (here is a thing for doing well).  It also underlines how it is important to proactively create engagement you want to improve teamwork and reduce turnover.

Higher Minimum Wages and Success in the Hospitality Industry

The state of California and several of its cities have been on the forefront of raising the minimum wage.  The arguments for (people cannot live on the current minimum wage) and against (it will cost jobs because business will need to lay people off) it are familiar.  But now there is some data that makes a very interesting link between quality and the impact of raising wages.

This study looks at the impact of raises in the minimum wage and restaurant employment in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Don’t be fooled by the academic nature of the paper—the authors do a good job of explaining things in English before digging into the math (though you can get another explanation here with an eye towards the political).  The main takeaway from the article is that well run restaurants (in this case, defined by high Yelp ratings) are not impacted by minimum wage hikes.  Crappy restaurants (based on quality, not menu price) saw their already higher closure rate go up with the increases.  So, what does this mean for HR?

  • Well run businesses can absorb higher wages when their competitors cannot. This may mean higher prices (in some instances people will pay for quality) or that these businesses can survive on lower profit margins.  HR can contribute to this through good hiring (brining in people who can deliver high levels of customer service) and training (developing a learning culture) practices.
  • Use data to improve quality. The study shows that online feedback (in this case, Yelp reviews) is strongly correlated with business success.  This customer input should be used to improve service and quality.
  • If we presume that the vast majority of the workers at the restaurants are at minimum wage (as the paper does), this research tells us that paying more is not an indicator of quality or success. If restaurant A is getting a rating of 5 and restaurant B is getting a rating of 3, it is not due to wage differentials.  Rather, it is likely based on the quality of the product and the level of service.  HR may not have much impact on the former, but it certainly does on the latter.

What the paper really tells is that that business can succeed without necessarily being the one that pays the highest wages.  When wages are held constant, hiring the best people from the available labor pool may lead to higher service delivery.  This, in addition to a good product, can keep a business successful, even if wages are forced to go up.

He Knows When You Are Working, He Knows When Are Logged Out

As long as there have been workers, management has looked for ways to manage performance.  In the case of piece work, it was mostly used to provide incentives for productivity.  As the economy became more service oriented, performance was also measured so that throughput could be forecasted more accurately (think about a telephone center predicting the number of call to be handled on a certain day).

The use of this data has traditionally been used to “gamify” work as well.  That is, make reaching certain performance level an incentive in and of itself.  Sales competitions are a great example of this.  The logic being that if something is like playing a game it will be more fun (read: motivating) than something that seems like work.

Big data gives companies more ammunition to gamify work.  It also provides opportunities for the application of it to go beyond making or selling widgets.  As this article points out, Uber is at the forefront of this (though, make no mistake, they are not the only ones doing it).

Uber really has a love/hate relationship with its drivers.  Right now it needs them, but they foresee a day where they will need fewer people behind the wheel due to the automation of cars.  Uber needs a lot of drivers to provide high levels of service, but a glut of them leads to fewer occurrences of surge pricing (Uber’s version of raising prices and being more profitable when demand is high compared to the supply of drivers), which leads to fewer people being available since they will not make as much money.

Forecasting labor availability is key for the company in order to maintain service levels.  But, since Uber insists that the drivers are independent contractors who can work whenever they want, they cannot schedule the appropriate number of drivers to match anticipated demand.  So, to keep drivers logged in the app and behind the wheel, they have employed the same techniques that video game designers use to keep people playing.

In the article, the author clearly thinks that tapping into these motivations is “tricking” drivers into spending more time behind the wheel than they may want to.  But, is this really any different than traditional motivation techniques used by leaders such as providing intrinsic motivators like praise (“I appreciate the hard work you put into that presentation”) to reward and encourage future efforts?  Is it more coercive than, “You need to work at the store on Thanksgiving or your fired.”?

The answers really depend on whether the goals that Uber wants to achieve are aligned with those of the drivers.  If keeping more people in the app leads to more idle time (time spent without making any money), then I have a real problem with it.  If it helps manage the drivers’ time in a way that allows them to be more efficient and them and Uber to be more profitable, then I am good with it.

Worker performance has always been managed to help achieve organizational goals.  New technologies allow companies to look at these issues more closely than ever before.  HR should examine closely whether these efforts enhance engagement and, in the case of independent contractors, financial viability.

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