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How Should Companies Focus on Workforce Education?

By Melissa J. Anderson

A new Mercer study on talent management has revealed that companies are scrambling to find workers with the right skills. The study, entitled Talent Rising: High Impact Accelerators to Global Growth polled HR and talent management executives of 1,268 organizations in a variety of different industries globally.

It found that firms that are the most actively involved in planning for the future tend to be the most confident that their workforce will meet their needs moving forward. Similarly, the study found that companies that are most positive about the future are also more likely to participate in learning and development in some way at the educational level – with some going far beyond internships or career fairs at universities to partner with school faculties in a deeper, more meaningful context.

Pat Milligan, Region President at Mercer and member of The World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Education and Skills said, “This lack of qualified talent is a real concern for employers and one that requires a multi-stakeholder approach to solving. We have found companies that are most optimistic about the future are actively involved in shaping it.”

How deep should companies go in shaping the workforce of tomorrow?

Problems and Solutions

According to the study, as the nature of work continues to change around the world, our understanding of what makes a company successful is also evolving. The report says:

“In the past, companies’ chief sources of competitive advantage were financial capital and the lands, buildings, and machines they owned or managed; they did not rely heavily on institutions and systems outside their control for success.

“Yet today – when human capital is the main determinant of success – many organizations are leaving the education, health, and development of their talent largely to external systems and forces, with resulting gaps in their talent portfolios.”

The Mercer report seems to be saying that companies in post-industrial economies are relying on workers who have grown up in a model of education create during the industrial era. About six in ten (57 percent) organizations said that educational institutions are failing to develop people with the skills businesses need today. About the same amount (59 percent) said this won’t change over the next five years.

Yet, while the majority of respondents bemoaned a lack of skilled job candidates, relatively few companies are doing anything to change the system. “Mercer’s research shows that employers

are most likely to participate in internships and job fairs and least likely to participate in university advisory councils or help shape academic curricula,” the report explains.

While 37 percent of respondents said they “to a very large extent” participate in internship programs, the percentages of companies getting involved in educational curricula were much smaller. Only 13 percent said they participate on university advisory councils to a large extent, and the same percentage said they partner with educational bodies to shape academic curricula to a large extent.

It stands to reason that if companies really feel people are graduating from college with inadequate skills to the extent that it could harm their business moving forward, they should be more involved in shaping the skills that schools are teaching.

Some organizations have taken on this challenge, and there is a correlation between having an effective workforce plan and the ability to find talent. Over half (54 percent) of the respondents who said that “educational institutions are generating the talent needed to fill my organization’s immediate business needs” said they had an effective workforce plan. Only 41 percent who said they same did not have an effective plan.

Tradeoffs

According to the study, companies would like to see universities focus more on professional skills.

“More than 50% of respondents say that professional sciences (business, education, law, and social work) and formal sciences (computer science, information technology, mathematics, and statistics) are the areas of study most important to their organizations. Only a quarter list natural sciences (life science, chemistry, and physics) as important to their business, and less than a fifth cite social sciences (economics, political science, psychology, and sociology) or humanities as important.”

But what is the trade-off here? If more organizations get involved with helping to plan educational curricula, will fields of study outside the professional and formal sciences fall by the wayside or become more obscure? Should students be treated as employees-to-be from the beginning of their education, or would a curriculum based solely on professional skills cause a loss of knowledge that is less explicit for companies to define? How would a workforce of people with solely business- or science- focused educations change how employees interact and become leaders?

For companies getting involved in curriculum planning, these questions will be pertinent as they look for ways to develop the workforce of tomorrow.

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