Learning as Competitive Advantage in the War for Talent

After posting this blog, I’ve continued to come across some interesting talent practices in this space, so I have continued to ‘update’ as information comes across my ‘virtual desk.’  I’ve choosen to group the new information under the original post so that you can see how the ideas have continued to develop over time. 

As I said in an earlier post, I am convinced that learning will be a source of competitive advantage in the war for talent.   Tough sell, I know . . . but only if you think of learning in a traditional context.  We need to broaden our thinking . . . Need examples?

Finding talent and training them your way:  If you have read anything about the demographics, you know that there is a talent shortage brewing.  One way to open up the talent pipeline is to position yourself differently at the source. 

Leaving nothing to chance, IBM has invested serious dollars in the development of a Services Science, Management and Engineering (SSME) curriculum at North Carolina State University and UC Berkeley.  While many companies make their presence felt on the university campus, few approach the depth of IBM in creating and delivering curriculum designed specifically to support their business . . . a great bet given about 50% of their revenue comes from areas it considers to be in the services arena.  In this case, IBM is certainly accelerating the time to effective deployment of college talent . . . one could argue that they are using the college years to ‘train’ and ‘on-board’ even before students are employed.  Talk about speed . . . what a concept. 

This is game changing play in that it alters the relationship between academia and corporations from one that supports research, facilities, and scholarships, to one that drives specific education content.   Companies like IBM, BMW, and Credit Suisse are opening up the talent pipeline by tailoring courseware in graduate and professional schools.  Supporters argue that students are better prepared for work when the curriculum is full of real-world applications.  Critics suggest that this is an important step which may serve to compromise academic independence.  But let me add this thought . . . what critics have not considered is the impact the demographic changes are going to have on the talent supply for the faculty pipeline.  Just as this is an unabashed opportunity for corporations to co-opt a talent pipline . . . it is an opportunity for Universities to leverage an educated, experienced workforce in the same way.  As a large group of boomer faculty move to retirement, Gen X’s opt out of tenure race in favor of more attractive corporate opportunities, and Gen Y’s politely decine the opportunity to pursue advanced degrees, the academic pipeline is getting thinner too.  What better way to open up the talent pipeline for the University, then to create a stronger relationship with the corporate world to draw back their talent at a time when they will need it too.

But this is not just a talent play for knowledge workers.   The energy industry, for example, is scrambling to find enought talent to plug critical shortages in the skilled trades as boomers reach retirement age.  Their issue is perhaps more complex than others in that they have to overcome is the perception that ‘trade careers’ are less rewarding financially and from a career advancement point of view.   While a college education can be a wise choice, for some the opportunity to learn a skilled trade while you earn an income can be a viable rewarding alternative. Using techniques like YouTube and MySpace videos and celebrity endorcements from people like Mr. Rowe, from Dirty Jobs, companies are trying to reach young Gen Y’s with a different kind of message.  Similarly, companies like W.W. Grainger is investing in technical education programs around the country.  Others are dipping into high schools and even elementary schools with trade friendly programs. 

Extending the Learning Network: Wondering where to locate your corporate headquarters . . . how about your R & D facility?  or a small start-up or a remote workforce?  Why not do what Express Scripts, Inc. did and locate your new HQ on the campus of the University of Missouri at St. Louis . . .blurring the line between University and Corporate work even further.  In 2006, Clemson entered into a similar arrangement with BMW AG when they opened up a joint automotive research-and-education center in Greenville, S.C.   Again, what an interesting way to open up the talent pipeline with a ready population of students as a potential workforce.  Or think about the R & D possibilities . . . what a wonderful way to accelerate your innovation engine by leveraging the intellectual talent available at the university.   What’s in it for corporate employees?  Well, a campus atmosphere and access to University resources like the gym and day care centers.  An interesting way to recruit an experienced boomer population who want to segway into retirement near a university or a Gen Y population who never want to leave.  It’s not a hard sell. 

On the skilled trade side, think about deploying your learning organization on the road . . making it available to pools of ready talent.  Michael Arndt, the training director for the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the US and Canada, launched a pilot program for National Guardsmen awaiting discharge. And apparently the Union is also purusing an opportunity to offer a mobile welding program to the Marines. 

Making it Easy to Transition Careers. . Inside the Company:  One of the trends I think we will see accelerate is career switching . . . particularly as Boomer’s contemplate how to wind down their careers, as Gen X’ers contemplate their middlessence, and Gen Y’s explore what it means to work.  Making it easy to explore, learn and transition to different careers without leaving the organization can be a powerful tool in the talent wars and a way to keep important intellectual capital inside the company.  Companies like Accenture, IBM, Verison Communications, Inc., Microsoft, and Dow Chemical Co. are offering employees an opportunity to transition without leaving.  What a powerful way to keep top performers, keep them engaged and leverage what they know in a different way.  Companies offer a range of services including things like: competency and personality assessments, internal career counselors, and web based programs to transition. 

Are you prepared to deliver against your future talent needs?  How will you compete for talent . . . In what ways is your organization going to leverage learning opportunities?

10/28/08 Additions:

Learning as a way to Negotiate Through Tough Times:  Toyota, like the other major auto makers is facing tough economic times as credit remains tight and gas prices fluxuate.  But instead of displacing employees for a short term economic gain, they’ve taken the long view.  Toyota decided to use the manufacturing lull to invest in training.  By using this time to invest in developing individual and organizational capability, they have positioned themselves for effectively for the long run.  And imagine what this type of commitment has on engagement.  Already, Toyota has seen results . . . employees have used the downtime training time to redesign their manufacturing process, identifying opportunities to reduce costs and improve the quality of the product. 

Making it Easy to Transition Careers . . .from outside the CompanyThis week Sara Lee announced plans to offer a new program called . . . ‘returnships.’  Using input from the Women’s Executive Network, they are in the process of developing an internship program for transitioning midcareerists who are interested in full time opportunities.  What a wonderful way to help potential employees segway back into full time employment or transition into new careers . . .while learning new skills and networking.  These paid internships are designed to last four to six months in a broad range of corporate positions, including marketing, R& D, and technology.  Small commitments to learning can turn into great long term employee investments. 


Demographic Trends – Energy Utilities

In this posting of demographic trends, I thought I’d examine an industry that is really being rocked – an industry that everyone cares about.  Demographic realities have created a labor shortage for Energy Utilities that can no longer be ignored. The potential risks to the industry are clear when you consider the roles effected by demographic trendsfossil plant managers, nuclear engineers, shift supervisors, transmission construction managers, technology professionals and energy traders. These roles are central to an Energy Utility’s ability to deliver uninterrupted power to its customers. For example: 

  • 48 years is the average age of a utility employee.  Only one other industry, out of 54, has a higher average age—Real Estate.
  • 19.2 % of the industry is within 5 to 7 years of retirement.
  • 16,000 fewer 16 to 34 year olds work in the industry, compared to 1990.


This Age Distribution chart depicts how demographic trends are influencing the Energy Utility’s workforce.  The chart is organized as follows: 

  • Workforce data for a single year is divided into six age categories
  • Each column represents the percentage of workers for an age category
  • Within an age category are multiple columns – each representing a different year’s data
  • The six columns for a single year depict the percentage distribution of workers by age.
  • The five columns within an age category depict trends in an age category’s workforce’s over time
  • Examining the chart in its entirety depicts how trends are shaping the flow of workers.

 This chart helps us see two critical events: Aging Workforce.  The average age of an Energy Utility employee is steadily rising.  In fact, since 1995, the number of workers, 55 and older has increased 2 ¼ times.  Older workers are the fastest growing segment within the industry. Shrinking Workforce Segment.  Since 1995, the 25 to 44 year old segment has contracted by 25%.  That means we have fewer managers and supervisors to support increasing demand for energy. These trends are significant and require utility executives to act now to address this business problem.  My concern is that while the executives I have spoken too are aware of the workforce crisis, they are not doing anything about it.  I can’t tell if they are hoping this will go away or if they plan to retire before the “pot boils over.”  Regardless, I’m still concerned……are you?  

All data is courtesy of the Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor and Statistics