Shaping Skills to Your Work

It is important to use valid selection tools to hire people for the work you have for them.  But, what happens when technology changes the tasks or the jobs get replaced by automation?  You can let people go as their work becomes obsolete and hire new staff.  However, in times with low unemployment, this strategy will be difficult to execute.  Or, you can train people to acquire the new skills.  This has big implications in industries where tech is changing the nature of work, such as mining and warehousing, just to name two.  However, trying to train lots of people in new skills assumes that they have the interest and aptitude for learning them.  Remember, people chose to pursue their given job/career for a reason.

Amazon and Walmart provide an example of this type of investment.  Their programs include technical and college training.  What is telling about their plans is that neither company considers it a “nice to have.”  Rather, it is an acknowledgement that the skills it takes to run their businesses are changing and they don’t think they can find enough talent to meet future needs in the labor pool.  This may be because so many young people want a career that requires as little work as possible.

The situation also makes one think about selecting people for industries where the skills required change rapidly.  Instead of using tests or interviews that focus on specific abilities, perhaps addressing broader ones, such as openness to new experiences and general aptitude, will serve companies better.

Trying to Stop the Tides

It seems very old-school, but sea ports are still very big business.  The twin ports in southern California (LA and Long Beach) are a huge economic driver (they are the primary sender/receiver of goods between North America and Asia) and employer.  But, they are also one of the biggest polluters in the region.  For as long as I can remember, there has always been a balancing act to keep the ports humming and making the area healthier.

A bit more under the radar has been the creep of automation. While car companies fought this battle with their unions a generation ago, the idea that automation can be stopped is still alive and well among the longshoremen.  This article gets into some of the specifics regarding the plan and it potential impacts.

From an HR perspective, the bigger story here is not the automation (it is going to happen as it makes the port more eco-friendly and efficient), but the lack of planning regarding the retraining of workers.  It is somewhat surprising that this is occurring at the ports because most of the labor disputes over the last 20 or so years have not been over wages but over the number of jobs.  The port and the union are now in negotiations about retraining and head count for different positions, but this is time and goodwill being spent now on solutions that could have been anticipated.

A better approach would be:

  1. Analyze the skills required for current jobs and for those created by the automation. Yes, new equipment needs to be programmed, maintained, etc.  Metrics of productivity and cost need up to updated, tracked, etc.
  2. Where the skills map directly, there no problem and this should be communicated to those employees.
  3. Where the skills don’t completely map, determine how the skills can be acquired.
  4. Communicate the path to skill acquisition clearly to those whose positions are going to be eliminated or changed. It should be presented as an opportunity rather than a threat.
  5. Provide adequate resources (tuition reimbursement, time away from work, etc.) to allow for the retraining.
  6. Develop and/or promote an internal posting system for those who cannot be placed in the new positions.

Automation has always been a part of business and that is not changing any time soon.  Trying to prevent is as useless a stopping the tides.  However, planning for it allows companies to keep valuable employees and for employees who are willing to upgrade their skills to stay employed.

Finding Talent in Nooks and Crannies

Low unemployment is great for the economy (rising wages!), but challenging for employers (higher quit rates and a smaller available talent pool).  This can lead to many creative recruiting strategies and looking at (relatively) untapped sources.  I came across two not-so-new ideas around this recently.

 

One is the idea of returnship—these are programs designed for people (primarily women) with white collar education and skills to transition them back into the workforce after raising their families.  These are initially short term job tryouts (like an internship).  I do find the idea somewhat patronizing in that it seems like companies that use it are saying, “We’ll let you take baby-steps (pun intended) back into the workforce and we’ll see if you’re ready.”  It seems exploitative of returning workers’ self-confidence and makes them compete (again) to get jobs that they have already shown they can do.  Having said that, companies that use the program are providing opportunities for a very talented pool of candidates.  The programs are VERY selective, so it is not surprising that more than half (but not always 100%)  of those who are chosen to participate transition to full time positions.

The other is providing job training for older workers.  I’ve written about ageism in recruitment and selection before and the problem is not getting any better.  This article outlines the pros and cons around re-training older workers.  Of course, part of the issue is that companies will force out older (more expensive) workers while they are still productive, and then the employer finds that they are missing important skills. Where the article misses the point is that if given a choice between hiring skilled people or retraining employees (of any age), hiring good talent is less expensive.  With so many skilled older workers available, companies with talent shortages (and not just McDonalds) would be wise to recruit from this talent pool.

Creativity often comes when we are faced with a dwindling resource, no matter how temporary.  Creating paths for working parents to come back to the workplace and retaining skilled older workers should always be part of HR’s recruitment and retention strategies.  Now is as good of a time as any to implement them.

Can We Prevent Top Talent From Walking Out the Door?

Biographical information (biodata) has been used to predict turnover and performance for a long time.  The idea is that certain verifiable aspects of a person’s life are indicators of future behavior.  To use an adage from an earlier time, if a person has changed jobs frequently in the past, s/he is not likely to stay with you very long.

We can now fast forward this idea to employee retention.  Or, put another way, can we predict which people are going to leave a company?  This article seems to indicate yes and it should not come as a surprise.

Putting aside privacy concerns for a moment, this approach goes beyond determining if a person is the right fit for a job due to their personality or values.  Rather, it potentially blends ideas that we would always think of creating turnover (bad boss, less pay compared to peers, length of commute, etc.) as well as those (number of startups in area, change in housing costs, etc.) that perhaps we had not thought of.    The added layer to the analysis is that it allows HR to say, “Wow, this is a person we don’t want to lose (or could not replace), let’s make some adjustments” or “Eh, that person is an underperformer anyway, so good riddance.”

More importantly, it treats retention as a dynamic, rather than static, state.  Previous biodata models would say, “This person has a 70% chance of staying 2 years or more.”  This data model might say, “Right now, this person has a 90% chance of staying through the end of the year.”  But, 6 months from now, if things change in the organization or in the person’s role, the model may say, “Right now, this person has a 60% chance of staying through the end of the year.”  This puts the onus on HR to work with managers to address the potential issues of valuable employees on a proactive basis.

From an employee’s perspective, I think there is opportunity here as well.  Imagine if they could pull up his/her “propensity to leave” score at any time.  Think of it as part of an employee engagement indicator.  This person could then see those things that may be causing them anxiety at work that might lead them to leave.  If it’s something minor that s/he feels could be easily addressed s/he could take it to a manager.  If it looks insurmountable, s/he would know that a new job search is a good idea.

The privacy issue here is real and, as with all concerns, depends how you feel about others using your data.  If I’m Amazon, Google, etc, there is a great temptation to link a person’s customer data with their employment application/employment status data to refine algorithms.  I have no idea if I’ve signed off on this when accepting their terms and conditions.  Do you?

Regardless of the “hotness” of the job market, this approach to dynamically tracking retention probabilities can be a very useful tool.  It can lead HR to being ahead of the game when trying to retain talent rather than offering the promises of a jilted lover as someone valuable walks out the door.

The Article Fallacy

Most popular press about industrial psychology topics makes me twinge.  It usually creates a train wreck between human behavior and management and makes over generalizations that fit into neat boxes which do not exist in practice.

 

At the same time, academic journals can often lag behind effective practice.  That’s not meant as a criticism.  Careful scientific study of anything takes time and if that means that a particular technique achieves acceptance before researchers give it the thumbs up, so be it.  This process is also how we debunk most of what makes it into airport books.

I bring this up because a friend of mine referred this article to me.  It was in a respectable publication and brings up a challenging idea—that feedback from other people is not all it is cracked up to be and that we gain more improvement by focusing on our strengths rather than our weaknesses.  It is a provocative idea which challenges a lot of notions in performance management, 360 processes, and coaching.

But, alas, there is very little data cited in their article, or that shows up in a search of research, that supports the ideas.  Well, except for other articles written on the topic by one of the authors which also lack data.  This does not mean that they are wrong.  Only that we have no objective way to know if they are right.  That really bothers me.  Especially when designing and executing a good study would not be difficult.

We should all be more evidenced-based in what we do.  That should also include the authors of articles and books.  But, I guess that hurts airport sales.

Overcoming Selection Buzzwords

When doing a job analysis or writing job descriptions, one of the terms that comes up that makes my hair stand on end is “multi-tasking.”  While our bodies can perform automated functions simultaneously (e.g., driving and talking), our brains cannot consciously do two things at once.  Rather, when I’m “multi-tasking” (like checking my phone and looking up data), what I am really doing is switching quickly (hopefully) between two tasks.  Oh, and recent research shows that men and woman are equally bad at it.

When seeking to understand what managers really want people to do, it is important that we challenge them on vague terms like “multi-task” and “empower.”  When we really get to the meaning of these terms, multi-tasking is being able to handle several projects at once and empower is delegating effectively.  Those are behaviors selection specialists can work with in designing assessments and interviews.

As buzzwords find their way into our conversations about what employees do, our job is to determine the behaviors behind them.  Doing so assigns meaning to the words and starts us on the path of objectively measuring them as part of validated selection systems.

What are your least favorite job description buzzwords?

Is Age Discrimination a Result of Change?

A class-action age discrimination lawsuit has been filed against IBM.  Much of the complaints in the action come from a report that purports to outline how the company has systematically replaced older workers with newer ones.  IBM is denying the allegations.

There are a couple of compelling issues here.  One is whether IBM is using sly methods to rid itself of older (read: more expensive) workers.  The other is whether workers who are in mid-career are technologically behind their younger counterparts in a meaningful way.  I’ll leave the former to the courts.  I’m much more interested in the latter.

There are some national studies that indicate that openness to new experiences does decrease with age.  However, the ability to learn does not. So, we can assume that older employees who are open to learning new technologies can certainly do so.

Whether it is how we get to a friend’s house or how we use technology, most of us like to stick to what we know and adapt to change in ways that keep our patterns of behavior.  To keep up-to-date on new technology or techniques not only requires a desire to learn, but also the willingness to give up what we have been good at.

There probably is not data to support the idea, but I am guessing that the hiring strategy at many companies is that they would rather select people who know the new stuff rather than try to train for it. If companies decide that they want to bring on those who have experience with newer technology, their layoff/hiring practices will likely show adverse impact against those 40 and older.

A person’s background is instructive in this area.  For people who have stayed up to date on technology throughout their careers, it is foolish to assume that they will not pick up (or haven’t already picked up) on the next new thing.  As such, I don’t believe that they are behind younger workers.  Senior management would have reason to be concerned about older workers who have not shown a willingness to update their skills.

Are older workers less likely to adapt to new technologies?  On the whole, probably.  However, painting them with a broad brush is likely a mistake.  Companies should do a thorough evaluation of the experienced talent before making decisions that can land them in court.

Reducing Bias Through Structure

Finding examples of racial or gender bias in hiring or job evaluations is not hard.  The latest comes from a survey of lawyers.  My sense is that the results did not come from a random sample of attorneys, so I would not quote the group differences as gospel.  The authors recommended some specific ways that law firms and companies that hire lawyers can correct the bias in their HR processes.  There were two things I took from the study:

  • Many, but not all, of the recommendations came from a solid research base. It was good to see that their hiring suggestions included behaviorally based interviews, skills based assessments, and using behavioral definitions of culture.  Each of these suggestions introduces objectively and structure into the hiring process.
  • Given that attorneys have either brought employment lawsuits or have had to defend companies against them since 1964, did it really take this long to come up with some hiring process recommendations?

My consulting experience tells me that people who hire for professional jobs seem to think there is more magic and intuition in selection than those who staff for other types of positions.  This is especially true when hiring for a job they used to have.  They could not be more wrong.  Every job has a set of critical skills and abilities required to do it well.  It is possible to objectively measure these in candidates.  Doing so will likely reduce bias.

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.

Adapting to Changes in Job Duties

I wrote a couple of months ago about how McDonald’s is changing the cognitive requirements of some of its jobs by adding channels for customers to order food. I argued that such a development should get them thinking about who they hire and how they train new employees.

If you have recently wandered into one of their stores, you probably noticed that, if it is not too busy, a McDonald’s employee may bring you your order. OK, this is not particularly revolutionary. But, to quote a franchisee in an article, “We’re bringing the employees from behind the counter out front to engage, in a more personal way, with our customers.” Maybe I am making more out of this particular example than it warrants, but this strikes me a really upping the customer service requirements of a McDonald’s employee. And I am guessing that a fair amount of the employees are not going to meet it. It’s just not what they signed up for.

This is not about whether McDonald’s employees are capable of providing the additional service or whether their ability to do it well affects the customer experience and/or sales. Rather, it appears to be an example of company changing job requirements and then assuming that people hired using a process that does not account for the new skills will be able to carry out the new duties.

Changing skills requirements is a good thing. It shows adaptation to technology and customer needs and makes the work experience more interesting for people in repetitive jobs. But, companies cannot assume that the incumbents can magically adapt without training and revised performance expectations.

This change also requires updating validation selection processes. Whether it means increasing the weight given to certain aspects or validating a new test, we must adapt our workforce to new job requirements on the front end. As jobs change, hiring practices should as well.

Technology and customers are big drivers of change in the skills, abilities, and personality characteristics required of employees. Smart companies not only redesign work to account for this, but they also update how they train and hire to help their workforce adapt.

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