We need to recognize that a large segment of our workforce needs a skills upgrade.

How to Help Your Best People Get Better

We need to recognize that a large segment of our workforce needs a skills upgrade.

Staff Writer

If we want the kind of trained workers that will keep our economy competitive, we need to remove the social and economic stigma from vocational training. Although that stigma has largely disappeared from our high schools and community colleges, it hasn’t at the college and post-college level. I’m specifically referring to the kind of high-end training provided at schools such as Tribeca Flashpoint College. It’s a school designed for students who want to work in the film, game, broadcast and media industries and who are in a hurry to get started. We’re beginning to see some increase in the volume of discussions and commentary on the subject, but the progress has been too slow and sporadic to make much of an impact so far.

And frankly, the overall situation isn’t as simple or straightforward as it might seem because, while everybody wants to get better and get ahead, these things don’t happen by themselves. Even the best solutions are only suitable for a small segment of the population. You’ve got to want it, be willing to work for it, be right for the job you’re seeking, and not get too far ahead of yourself. This isn’t a cure-all for the world’s problems, but it’s very clear that if we don’t get started on addressing the problem, things will only continue to get worse.

There’s no longer any question that an education which equips a new graduate with the tools and technologies that it takes to join today’s tech-and-data-centric workforce is far more likely to lead to solid earnings and long-term employment in our digital global economy than an expensive, traditional 4-year program. The marketplace is increasingly looking for meat-and-potatoes, hit-the-ground running players who can be add value on Day One. People still looking to “find themselves” after getting their liberal arts degrees are going to find fewer and fewer places willing to hire and pay them while they struggle down the path to career nirvana. This just isn’t the way the world works today.

But an even bigger concern, and a much greater exposure for our entire economy, relates to the efforts we’re making to upskill our existing workforce– especially the folks in their 40s and 50s– who basically lack the digital smarts needed to be valued contributors to their businesses in the next few years. We know it, they know it, and we’re basically doing nothing about it.

We’re gonna need new commitments and training programs for significant portions of this currently-employed but severely at-risk population. These people (millions of them) aren’t going to age-out in time or just disappear; no business will be able to retain them as they continue to become less and less effective each year.

But even if a company is ready and willing to commit the time and treasure that it will take to get the program started, it’s a tricky process. As I noted above, there’s not enough room for everyone on the new ark and it’s going to require some hard decisions and many difficult conversations. Some of these areas are highly politicized and will require elaborate dances around claims of ageism and other forms of discrimination. Others are subject to contractual impediments such as union work rules– or company policies regarding long-term or even lifelong employment. But it’s abundantly clear that the best protection a business can offer its under-trained or under-skilled workers is a path toward the “new” collar jobs of the future.

There’s no single path or one-way approach that suits every situation, but there are a few important ground rules to get you started. And let’s be clear that these aren’t necessarily politically correct observations; they are, rather, today’s facts of life.

(1) There isn’t enough time and there aren’t enough resources to go around

Every business has financial constraints and priorities including – above all – the need to keep performing while you’re transforming the workforce. Someone has to mind the store and no business can afford to have too many team members otherwise occupied. So, it’s crucial to develop programs to initially accommodate a realistic portion of your employees and not try to serve everyone at once. Some people will need to be patient, some people will opt out, and some people will need some convincing. You don’t have to beg anyone to get better, but some folks may misinterpret the effort or think that they won’t be successful. If they are valued employees, they’re worth the time and effort it will take to convince them.

(2) You can’t help all of the people and you shouldn’t even try

Some people just aren’t good candidates for this kind of program. Plain and simple. If they’ve gone as far as they can go, they aren’t worth the investment. If they don’t value the opportunity, they aren’t worth the expense. If they aren’t willing to make the necessary effort, they aren’t worth the time and they probably won’t be around for that much longer anyway. You can show people the path; you can’t take the trip for them. You have to be willing to make these difficult calls and to live with the consequences, the hurt feelings, and even the departures. Otherwise, you’re doing a disservice to your company and to the people who are really into the program. It is not easy, but it is essential.

(3) It’s hard to turn even the smartest scholar into a super salesman.

Some people are just best suited for certain roles and professions. Maybe it’s genetic, maybe it’s upbringing or education, or maybe it’s just their personalities. A few can reinvent themselves, but that’s not the high percentage bet. One of the mistakes that companies make is trying to append digital skills to the wrong people. As much as your marketing guys want to learn data science, it’s much, much easier to teach a data scientist the basics of marketing. You can’t teach a marketing guru the equivalent of years of university data science training in his spare time. Teach him everything there is to know about social media all day long if you like, but don’t try to make him into something he’ll never be.

(4) You don’t learn or “grow” into certain skills no matter how long you’ve been on the job.

This is wishful thinking or worse. Left to their own devices, most people don’t take the time or make the effort required to get better. They don’t take extracurricular courses, attend optional lectures, read the literature on their own time, etc. They’re happy with what works for them now and they’ve already got plenty on their plates so they aren’t gonna go out of their way to add to the pile. But, the only direction that things go by themselves is downhill. If they’re not getting better, they’ll slowly (or not so slowly) get worse.

Bottom line: If I accept you as you are, I make you worse; if I treat you as what you can become; I help you become better.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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