In an advanced job age, new skills are required for a changing work force

For some years, Michigan employers have expressed concern they can’t find workers with the right skills for their job openings. That problem has become more pronounced as the state’s unemployment rate has dropped to a low of 4.2%.

In addition, many companies are changing their business focus and need employees with different or more advanced skills than in the past. What’s an employer to do?

“Competition for employees is really fierce and employers have to be at the top of their game,” said Mary Feuerbach, Michigan’s workforce readiness director for the national Society for Human Resource Management. She travels all over the state to help employers with training and other workforce-related programs.

Traditionally, many employers of all types and sizes have relied on training to teach their workers about new products, policies, processes or organizational changes. But experts agree the global economy is becoming more competitive and that the pace of change is increasing.

Mary Feuerbach

New skills required
“Every organization is transforming digitally. It changes how people work. People have to expand their capacity. It could be a need to do their job differently. A customer service representative may need to use software,” explained Gene Mage, managing director of Custom Programs for Executive Education at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business.

“For a high-performance company, the training budget and line item are valued as ways to be more competitive and seek revenue sources,” said Feuerbach, who is also a human resource administrator for Hannahville Indian Community, which has 1,100 employees in the community’s government offices and casino.

Upskilling is really important in a tight labor market, according to Leian Royce, vice president of strategic change at Accelerated Knowledge, a training firm based in Muskegon, Mich. Their clients include financial services, insurance, health care and pharmaceutical companies.

“Human resources staff members should partner with operations to look at skills now and what they will need in the future. You know your employees and can offer better career paths for them,” said Royce, who recommends that learning teams develop the curriculum.

Retraining offers advantages
McKinsey Global Institute predicts that by 2030, approximately 14% of the workforce will have to change careers because of automation and artificial intelligence. Even now, as companies transform their products and services to compete globally, workers may need new skills in order to be productive. Manufacturing workers who lose their jobs after the closing of auto plants, for example, may need to be retrained, sometimes at vocational schools, in order to find new jobs, said Jennifer Eichenberg, a corporate trainer based in Northville, Mich.

But attending school — whether a vocational school or college — takes time, Feuerbach points out. Training provided by an employer is quicker and helps to retain the employee.

Jennifer Eichenberg

Retraining current workers offers several advantages. First, since unemployment is so low, competition is keen for new workers and it can be difficult to recruit and retain them. But workers who are already part of an organization are familiar with and presumably compatible with its culture and goals, so they have an advantage over new recruits.

Upskilling and reskilling are the new buzzwords for training. Both refer to instructional programs that help employees enhance their current knowledge and sometimes learn totally new skills. Training traditionally has been mostly “top down” — instructors delivering content to employees, maybe with a video or PowerPoint presentation, with limited interaction or initiative on the student’s part. New technology now enables students to access training themselves, when they need it.

Mixed approach of digital, in-person
Improved accessibility is cited as a key advantage of web-based training. According to Ellyn Shook, chief leadership and human resources officer at Accenture, quoted in Human Resources Magazine, when one of their clients shifted from 100% classroom training to 75% digital-based training, average participation increased 92%.

Eichenberg notes that web-based training has the advantages of having a long shelf life and being easy to change. Today’s web-based training has many variations and special features. Its foremost benefit is that employees in different locations who may work different shifts can access the same material at their convenience. It is “on demand,” which U-M’s Mage points out is how most people access their entertainment or shop today.

“Most people have a smartphone and most do courses on their phones,” he said.

“Consumers are pushing organizations that in many cases had lagged in technology,” said Royce. She cites the smart watches that enable individuals with chronic health problems to track vital measurements.

Digital or web-based learning does not necessarily mean one-way instruction through a webinar with the ability to submit questions by email. It can include videos (sometimes accessed through YouTube), software that helps employees track their progress in a course, and simulation of work situations.

Of course, it’s not the same as being in a room with co-workers and enjoying the social and work-related give-and-take of an in-person session. But organizational trainers stress that companies can use a mix of methods to achieve their goals.

Royce said a “blended approach” with in-person and web components, along with team aspects, is effective. Mentors can be available for questions and workshops can provide follow-up. She adds that case studies can provide an opportunity to enhance training.

The effectiveness of any training program depends on its goals, content and how it is delivered. Training programs should encompass “reading needs and taking into account the nuances of their (the company’s) culture through tailoring and customizing,” Mage recommends.

Gene Mage

“Organizations should use a variety of both younger and older instructional designers. The younger individuals may be early in their careers, but are more aware of the application of technology,” Royce said.

Trainers suggest that millennial employees have special needs and interests. Royce says that they want interactive, interesting learning opportunities.

“Millennials are more organic learners — they are going to YouTube and Google — to sources that may not be vetted or accurate,” said Royce.

She adds that they like “micro-learning” — the ability to find web-based instruction for very specific topics. They may ask, “What are we supposed to know after 15 minutes?” Royce says.

Leadership training increasingly popular
Leadership training, a specialized form of organizational training, is also undergoing content and methodology changes. “More and more companies are doing it, because the environment is more complex and they are using a leadership competency model,” says Eichenberg.

Management development was the term often used in the past when this training focused on operational issues such as budgets and staffing. Now leaders need to be able to help their employees cope with new technology and other changes — whether technical or organizational, she explained.

The University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business offers a range of executive and leadership programs, including some that are customized for a particular client organization. Their programs are offered at the employer’s site or in Ann Arbor, Mich., which takes participants away from potential job-related distractions, Mage explained. Also, executives may be geographically dispersed and meeting together provides “face-to-face interaction with the chance to build relationships and connect,” he added.

The university’s programs for senior level executives may encompass meetings three or four times a year or every six months for three years. Programs may use synchronous digital instruction with participants signing on together with their classmates. The instructor can see 60 people at one time, Mage explained. There are also “hybrid” programs which include digital instruction with face-to-face components. “People want accessibility,” he said.

Eichenberg concurred. “You don’t teach leadership solely by watching videos or through books or e-learning, which are passive forms of learning,” she said, adding that quarterly programs can facilitate communication.

Training for change
Change management is another growing, specialized area of training. “Every industry is going through disruption and there is acceleration in the pace of disruption,” Mage said.

This challenges employees, managers and leaders. A key question, Royce explained, is how the company culture will change. Leaders have to communicate and listen.

“The world is transforming very quickly. People want to know how change will affect them — will they come out okay, how will their needs be met? Leaders need to ask, ‘What will we need to do to get through change?’” said Royce. She says that training can help managers effectively support the change — whether it’s a large companywide IT project or structural transformation.

Whether the goal is teaching casino workers how to fix a slot machine that takes credit cards rather than coins, or preparing a corporation for a new employee evaluation system, training is a fundamental tool. Fortunately, technology is making training more personalized and easy to obtain.

“There is lots of content you can access. The challenge is to curate it in the right way and time, so there is a coherent journey and sequence for the learner, so that they are learning and growing in their ability to do their job and as a person,” Mage said.