Mind the Skills Gap

I want to take you back to the most festive seasonal job I ever had—and the management lesson I learned there.

I was a college student eyeing the four-week break between semesters as an opportunity to make money. My friend learned Williams Sonoma paid a higher hourly wage than all the other mall gigs we’d entertained, so we got our applications in early, made the cut, and filled out our W-2s.

At semester’s end we came home, ironed our white collared shirts, and donned badges that said IN TRAINING. We shadowed full-time staffers on the register. We learned how to find items in the massive backroom. We gift-wrapped boxes the fancy way—with double-sided tape and the paper ends tucked under. We helped Carter Beauford of the Dave Matthews Band take two shopping carts of cookware out to his car. We had a pretty good time and listened to a lot of Christmas music.  

Then our store manager said she wanted me to work the sales floor. She’d noticed I enjoyed interacting with customers and making conversation. I said, “Sure!”In theory, I’d be a great salesperson.

What our store manager didn’t know was this: I thought espresso was pronounced expresso, and the most gourmet meal I’d ever cooked was scrambled eggs with a side of toast and thawed broccoli.

So, I greeted customers warmly and struck up a conversation about their interests. Things would be going great—and then the bottom would drop out. They’d ask me something like, “Can you tell me about the benefits of copper cookware?” and I would need to find my green-apron village—fast. Let me track down an answer for you on that. I’ll be right back. I really had no clue about any of our products or how to use them.

The experience taught me this management lesson: sometimes our people really don’t have the knowledge and skills we think they do. We identify potential and provide opportunities, but the results don’t always meet our expectations.

And if we add a little pressure to the situation, we get frustrated. We point fingers and cite deficits. We say things like “Our people just aren’t stepping up.”

Now, we know there is a skills gap—or at least we’ve seen the research. Look at the headline of Gartner’s September 2018 press release, which says only 20 percent of employees have the skills they need for both their current role and their future career. Another study released in 2018 says almost half of the 600 U.S. human resources leaders surveyed think colleges aren’t preparing students for the working world.

So, what can we do when we realize our team members might not exactly have the capabilities we thought they did? How can we move beyond “bah humbug” into a more constructive mindset?

Here’s one place to start. Instead of asking, “Why aren’t my people stepping up?” ask a different question:

“What if my team truly wants to take ownership and do a great job—but they just lack the knowledge and skills?”

Picture me, out on the Williams Sonoma sales floor naively talking with customers about “expresso machines.” Or walk down memory lane and remember that time you were in a new role with a steep learning curve and no formal training in sight.

Do you believe your hungriest, most committed team members have what it takes to learn the skills of the future? If the answer is yes, boldly point them in the direction of their—and likely your—dreams. Clarify what you need and what you want to see. Partner with team members to identify obstacles in the way of success and remove them. Co-create innovative ways they can upskill quickly.

And here’s one last tip as you take a good, hard look at what your business needs this year: prioritize soft skills and EQ. Inc’s article 31 Tech Predictions for 2019 shares this astute quote from co-founder and chief strategy officer of D2L, Jeremy Auger:

“Technical skills have been the holy grail of hiring in years past, but these skills have rapidly declining shelf lives. The rise of A.I. and automation means employees are increasingly tasked with jobs that only humans can do: thinking creatively, using judgment, employing empathy, etc. Adaptability will be the most durable skill in the years to come, as the ability to learn and adjust becomes more important than any one skill.”  

Your people can step up. They might just need you to point them in the right direction.

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