Mind the (Skill) Gap!

If you’ve ever traveled by rail in the United Kingdom (or watched any BBC program that includes a scene in the London Underground) you’ve no doubt come across the phrase “Mind the gap.” Plastered on signs and broadcast via public address systems, this message reminds travelers to be careful of the space between the train platform and the train. Sometimes the train is higher or lower than the platform; sometimes there there is a horizontal space between the train and the platform. Regardless of the setup, though, the traveler needs to pay attention to where his or her destination lies—and figure out how to get there.

Organizations, too, need to “mind the gap.” In this case, it’s not a matter of differences in physical space but one of differences between needs and resources: the so-called skills gap. If ignored (or not taken seriously enough), this lack of alignment can lead to missteps, stumbles, and even disaster. Organizations need to be aware of the skills gap—and figure out how to get to the other side of it.

Navigating the skills gap has become one of the biggest challenges for recruiters over the past few years. Two years ago I predicted that the skills gap would be a major issue for the staffing industry in 2014. Not only was this prediction accurate in 2014, but it proved to be true in 2015 as well: last year, Manpower conducted an extensive survey on this subject and found that “the number of global employers reporting talent shortages in 2015 peak[ed] at a seven-year high of 38%.” So not only did the skills gap fail to improve last year, but it actually became more difficult for employers to fill job openings!

Guess what? The skills gap isn’t going away any time soon and will be a major issue in 2016, too. So what can recruiters do about it?

First off, companies need to realize that the skills gap can’t be closed merely by adopting better recruiting strategies. Staffing firms should constantly be working to improve their recruiting strategies. When they want to address a particular issue, though, they need to get creative and come up with issue-specific solutions. So rather than ask “How can we improve our recruiting strategies?” companies need to find the answer to “How can we improve our recruiting strategies in order to mitigate the skills gap?” Once a company starts asking specific questions, it’s possible for it to start coming up with specific solutions.

If you consider that the skills gap is the result of these two factors—

  1. not enough people have the skills that employers need, and

  2. the people who have the needed skills aren’t working for your company

—then mitigating the impact of one or both of them can lead to a reduction in the skills gap.

One way a staffing firm can address #1 is by building strategic partnerships with vocational training centers and developing in-house training programs to help people acquire the needed skills in exchange for a committed relationship with the company. Remember the premise of the 1990s television series Northern Exposure? In that show, the character Joel Fleishman had received scholarship money from the state of Alaska to pay for medical school and in return had to run a medical clinic in a rural town there for four years upon completion of his studies. That fictional setting was actually inspired by a real program: the U.S. military’s practice of paying someone’s medical school costs in exchange for a certain amount of military service afterward. (For example, the U.S. Army currently requires one year of active-duty service for every year of medical education that it funds.) Staffing firms can look into developing their own versions of this program, offering or paying for training in needed fields to people who are willing to commit to a certain amount of time of employment at those companies afterward.

As for #2, once a company identifies which skills are in demand at that organization, it can find ways to attract the people who have them. For example, a firm might offer flexible scheduling to appeal to skilled workers who prioritize that benefit. You don’t have to hand new employees the keys to the kingdom, of course, but you do need to be willing to take their interests and needs into account during the recruitment and hiring process. This is particularly important in a competitive market, because if you don’t give top talent what they want (within reason, of course), your competitors might—and then you’ve lost out on a great hire.

As you look ahead to 2016 (and beyond!), be aware of the skills gap that lies before you. If you’re careful to “mind the gap,” you can develop ways to build a bridge across it and close the distance between your company and its success.