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The Training Gap: How employers lose their competitive edge

In the November 24, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader questions the lunacy of the training gap.

Question

I am responding to your question asking whether or not we, your readers, agree with employers that there is a “skills gap.” I am not sure I can really answer your question, though I will tell you that I have my doubts that there is a skills gap.

I think what there may be is a training gap.

What I can tell you is this. Back in 1986 I was hired by an insurance company as a computer programmer after having completed four years of college (linguistics major), followed by a six-month program in data processing. While I did have training going into the job, the company provided me and my co-workers with a lot of on-the-job training. They had an education department, and we all went through hours, and hours, and hours of paid on-the-job training in computer programming.

My understanding about the reason the company did this was because they wanted to train us to do things the way loser2they wanted them done.

My question to you is, do you find that kind of thing to be true anymore? Are companies willing to invest in training their employees after they have been hired? Or are companies no longer willing to do that?

Nick’s Reply

You’re hitting on one of the key issues behind the so-called “talent and skills shortage.” Who is actually responsible for brewing talent and skills? Job seekers? Schools? Employers themselves?

It seems clear in today’s economy that most employers believe they should be able to acquire skills ready-made. Despite the fact that the nature of a job depends a lot on a particular company’s business — jobs are not one-size-fits-all-companies, after all — businesses expect that the exact constellation of skills they need is going to walk in the door just because they advertised for it.

The training gap is real

Consider the embarrassing contradiction: Any company will tell you that it is the most competitive one in its industry, that its products are uniquely the best, that what they deliver isn’t available anywhere else.

So, why is it they expect the unique talent they want to hire already exists, as if it comes in a can to be purchased on a job board — or that it already exists at a competing company? They might as well admit that their products are the same as everyone else’s.

If you admit you can get your new hires wholly-made from another employer — your competitor — then you might as well tell your customers to buy what they need there, too. If a company wants the skills and talents it needs to be unique and competitive, it had better take responsibility for creating them.

I don’t believe there’s any talent or skills gap. At least in the United States, talent abounds. There’s arguably more talent on the street, looking for work, than ever in history. But to make a worker an element of its unique, competitive edge, the company must make that worker in its own image. It must cast the worker as unique as its products or services. It takes the same kind of investment to brew talent as to brew a competitive product.

We know for a fact that employers have indeed cut back enormously on training. It’s been confirmed by Wharton researcher Peter Cappelli. He’s shown that, adjusting for time, technology, and other factors, American workers are no less skilled or educated than they’ve ever been. However, employers have all but stopped training employees. Employers own the problem – they created it. (See Employment in America: WTF is going on? and Why Companies Aren’t Getting the Employees They Need.)

Cappelli writes in the Wall Street Journal:

“Unfortunately, American companies don’t seem to do training anymore. Data are hard to come by, but we know that apprenticeship programs have largely disappeared, along with management-training programs. And the amount of training that the average new hire gets in the first year or so could be measured in hours and counted on the fingers of one hand.”

Bye-bye, competitive edge!

Your 1986 story confirms Cappelli’s finding that, not very long ago, employers considered training important. Today, it’s pathetic. It’s embarrassing. It’s shameful. HR departments think they can buy off-the-self workers who don’t need or deserve training or skills development, while their marketing departments claim the company’s products are unique, state-of-the-art and without equal. This training gap is the pinnacle of corporate hypocrisy.

Then there’s the industry that aids and abets it. LinkedIn and other job boards successfully market the fraudulent notion that “we have the perfect candidate in our database – just keep looking!” (See Reductionist Recruiting: A short history of why you can’t get hired — Or, Why LinkedIn gets paid even when jobs don’t get filled.) Employers buy that bunk sandwich in bulk, and stuff it into their recruiting strategies and hiring policies. They behave as if they can hire “just in time” the “perfect candidate” who has been doing the same job for five years already — at a lower salary.

What job seeker wants either of those two “qualities” in a new job?

loserWhen companies fail to educate, train and develop their new hires and existing employees, I think they say goodbye to any competitive edge. Their customers get cookie-cutter products and services. What this state of affairs tells us is that there’s a talent shortage in corporate leadership. (See Talent Shortage, Or Poor Management?)

As long as employers treat people — that “human resource,” that “human asset” — as a fungible commodity or interchangeable parts to be bought and sold as-is, their products and services will be no better than interchangeable parts sold at the lowest possible price.

Take a look at another article by Peter Cappelli, where he slaps management hard upside the head with this apt analogy:

“Imagine a car manufacturer that decided to buy a key engine component for its cars rather than make them. The requirements for that component change every year, and if you can’t get one that fits, the car won’t run. What would we say about that manufacturer if it just assumed the market would deliver the new component with the specifications it needed when it needed it and at the price it needed? It would certainly flunk risk management. Yet that’s what these…companies are doing.”

I think Cappelli answers your question, and I don’t think there’s any debate: Most companies no longer invest in shaping and developing their employees. Their talent-challenged finance executives preach that cost reduction is a better path to profitability than investment. This exacts an enormous price on our economy because it’s relegating those companies to the scrap heap of “me-too enterprises,” and it’s failing our workforce as a whole.

I also think you highlight the solution: “…the reason the company [provided extensive education and development]… was because they wanted to train us to do things the way they wanted them done.” That’s what gave your employer an edge. No investment in training means no edge.

Drive by and keep your edge

My advice: Keep on truckin’ right past employers that provide no education, training or development to new hires and employees. These are companies that don’t invest in their future success — or yours.

Go find their able competitors. There are some good ones out there. They’re not easy to find, just like talent isn’t easy to develop. (That’s why you should pursue the best companies — not jobs.) The mark of a truly competitive product is the unique skills and talents a company developed to produce it.

The next time you interview a company, ask to see their employee training and development plan. If they don’t have a good one, tell them your career plan is to avoid working in a stagnant environment. Flip them a quarter and tell them to call their next candidate, because they probably still have a pay phone in the lunch room.

thanksgivingDoes your employer provide training and development to give you (and itself) a competitive advantage? When you’re job hunting, do you ask about employee education? If you’re an employer, what kind of training to you do?

All the best to you and yours for a Happy Thanksgiving!

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52 Comments
  1. Y’know, sometimes I read this blog just to remind myself that (even though my co-workers and I have our minor gripes like everyone has about the company they work for) the job I’ve got is really a pretty good one.

    Our clinic does train. It’s one of the rare massage clinics which actually requires a substantial amount of work experience in addition to one’s training and license for a therapist (most LMP jobs are open to just-out-of-school therapists so long as they can demonstrate the skills in the hands-on trial when interviewing), so it would be within what passes these days for reason to expect that the new therapists they hire know how to do the work. But when we arrive, we go through 15 hours of classroom training before we are even allowed to lay hands on a client, and more is expected over the time we work there.

    Every few months, the clinic offers its own course in something or other they’ve decided they want us to do better than we do now. Sometimes the classes are voluntary, sometimes they’re required. They offer formal CE credit for it, so we can count it against our license renewal requirements. And they show us how much of a priority it is to them by paying us for the time (VERY unusual for massage therapists, who usually do not get paid for all the hours we’re on the clock… only those where we actually have a client on the table), and by blocking those hours out of our schedule so that, even if we’re on shift at the time one is being offered, we’re still able to attend.

    They do it for the reason this week’s correspondent pointed out: they want us to do things THEIR way. Dreamclinic has a high standard for therapist skill, client service, and a host of other factors; and they don’t intend to leave it to chance whether we happen to already know how to welcome a guest in the specific ways *they* think one should be welcomed. And, in fact, mostly we didn’t… not because we didn’t know how to welcome a client pleasantly and professionally; but because DC has their own opinions about *exactly* what is the best way to introduce yourself to the guest in the waiting room and invite them upstairs. We might have learned a perfectly good way, but we cannot have learned *their* way before we got to them. And they’re smart enough to know that, so they don’t expect it — they expect that we care enough about getting it right to want to learn, and take seriously the need to do it their way once we know what that is.

    This attitude is capable of backfiring. If they had a persnickety method that I *didn’t* think was better than the way I already did it, I’d be hard pressed to figure out what to do… use their way or use my judgment. Fortunately, our owner has a good eye for client services, so the ways she asks us to do things are pretty consistently good ideas… and when the trainings she offers are in areas which are our specialty rather than hers, she will hire the senior therapists to teach the junior ones, and pay them extra for the task.

  2. My observation over the years is that there are two types of profession development (PD) tracks available to employees. The first track is the one provided by the employer that the employee must attend. The types of PD provided in this track consists of workshops and conferences that the employee attends where someone reads PowerPoint slides for a full day with two 15-minute breaks and an hour for lunch. The topics may or may not be related to the employee’s work, but you do get a nice certificate of attendance. In my organization, there are some people who spend the majority of their time at such conferences. Unfortunately there is a large body of evidence that this type of training does not have any effect on practice, and it usually isn’t part of any thoughtful professional development plan.
    The second track is the one that must be initiated by the employee as part of a targeted personal professional development plan. Many organizations allow employees to take classes and skill based trainings at company expense, particularly when the employee can demonstrate a return on investment to the employer. Education leading to a professional certification or license, or college courses leading to a degree or advanced degree, or a series of classes leading to proficiency in an application (e.g. Excel, Access or a programming language) benefits both the employee and the organization.
    The key is that the employee must be the one responsible for planning and implementing the professional development plan. If you leave it up to the employer, all you will have at the end of your employment is a file full of certificates. Early in my career, I took advantage of every dollar of tuition reimbursement available to me which eventually led to a graduate degree. More recently, I was able to attend employee-paid classes in Access, Excel, and Project enabling me to switch positions in my organization (a promotion) using those skills my employer paid for. Research your company’s policies, ask other people how they did it, and then make it happen for yourself.

  3. Hi Nick,
    I am finding that one industry is investing a lot in training. The Service industry. More and more meduim and even small service firms are training employees, both administrative and service techs in sales, safety and job-specifics.
    The investment made seems to pay back well in terms of increased profitability for the company and employee loyalty.
    We in service have always maintained that finding, training and keeping the best mechanics/techs is essential for maintaining a healthy business.
    What do you think?

  4. Nick,

    I am base in Europe, so I don’t think the question of training is unique to US companies. When I started out as a trainee accountant 30 years ago, my employer at the time was always running in house training or investing in me learning on the job.

    Companies don’t do this anymore they expect you to do it yourself. The audit firms are the worst, because they expect their clients to train their trainees for them!

  5. Employers stopped training because no one stays long enough for the training to start paying dividends.

    Senior management doesn’t invest in training because they know that they probably won’t be around long enough to see the benefits and look for shorter term projects that will put more shine in their resumes.

    Also senior management want a much shorter return on the equity-tied portion of their compensation than training will provide.

  6. This article should be included in the performance plan of every mid-manager and up

    @Ty – common misconception – average employee stay is actually up to about 10 years according to US Bureau of Labor stats. This obviously varies widely across sector/geography. Notwithstanding that, which comes first – lack of training, disgruntled employees, turnover??

    The person responsible for the training of the employees is the direct report manager. S/he assesses what the employees need to excel, goes upstairs to get the budget, and executes the plan. Success of this goes goes into her performance review. If you take a manager job with reports and don’t have a training budget, you are part of the problem.

  7. I have 2 problems with the company training that I’ve received. Here’s what I do to deal with it:

    1. The “official” training that’s provided is poor. The best people to train you aren’t the people in the “training department.” It’s the people who are the best at doing your job.

    I find that you have to develop relationships with those stars and then show them that you’re using what they taught you.

    2. When you need to take courses to get promoted to your next job within the company, the company won’t pay for it. Or they’ll only pay if they’ve already hired you for the job that requires the courses.

    The kicker though is that you often have to take the courses to get the qualifications to get the job in the first place. It’s a catch-22.

    I resolve it by paying for the courses myself. In my experience, one of two things will happen:

    1. Your company reimburses you after they promote you. Or:

    2. You get hired elsewhere at a higher salary.

    Either way, you keep learning and eventually you get the return on your course investment, too.

  8. @VP Sales I think that number might be for a specific classification. The BLS site says median tenure for all workers in 4.6 years. 4.1 for the private sector.

    http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/tenure.pdf has some interesting info including trends from 2004. I’d like to find long term stats to see how good it really was back in the day.

    In my experience there are indeed are training budgets in most companies but they are not really supported by any clear focused strategy from the top. I believe the top is fairly well convinced that any real relevant training will simply shorten the already low employee tenure.

    The tepid support from the top, in turn, is read loud and clear by the middle managers. The budgets are often finally administered by HR and you know what that means.

    The budgets do make good copy on the company’s career page.

  9. This article hit home. I spent a lot of time and money to get my project management certification and to keep that certification. I have also spent time and money to learn about Agile methodology, business analysis, and programming.

    Yet, those of use who have skills are not qualified enough according to the HR gods and goddesses. Yeah, we have skills but may lack one or two, or do not have the right number of years experience. It is frustrating to have experience and training and be told it is not good enough.

    I totally agree with the sentiment in this article that employers are looking for the perfect candidate to magically show up at the door with the exact skill set for the right price. No one is willing to give a new hire the time to learn while doing the job.

    Will there always be a large pool of talented people from which to draw or will that pool dry up? Employers behave as if there will always be another one to come along or the next candidate will be even better.

  10. @Kevin Kane
    I agree with you about “official” company training–it is not good. We have someone in our company who “trains” in project management but has never taken a course and is not certified. It shows when people I know who took the training and tell me they have a project management plan that is nothing more than an Excel spreadsheet.

  11. I have never had any employer offered training in any job I have had. I recently left a position that I thought when I was hired would lead to moving up into better positions within the company. Turns out that management wanted to hire from outside only and your supervisor had to give permission for you to change jobs. Therefore, the supervisors usually said no and people could not move to another position in the company. All training was you teach yourself. The CEO and upper management had never worked any where else in their entire career but the person who did the hiring had been promoted upwards so you’d think that would be valued. I suspected this person got promoted and wanted to ‘clean house’ cause she hired unqualified people who turned into bad managers rather than promote qualified staff. The CEO was hired straight out of college as the CEO and stayed for almost 50 years. People felt discouraged, to say the least!

  12. You bet! I joined a computer company in 1980 as technology apprentice. The company had a training budget and paid FULL FREIGHT my evening/weekend study for a Bachelors degree which I graduated in 1884. The CEO at a company wide meeting gave mention of my 4 years and said that there is a huge pile of cash industry is investing in capital expenditures but not much directed to Human capital. He said the company that is not investing in training and development now will not be around in the future to invest in anything,

  13. Nick,

    This one should go in your “Corc’s Diamonds” tab, or whatever your call the best of the best posts.

    For me, it’s a matter of quality control: How do you know that the employees are doing things the right way if you haven’t trained them yourself? Guess? Hope?

    Orchestras, bands, sports teams, police and the military all train and train and train together before they do their jobs in real life.

    I do know that some companies are afraid to invest in training because they think their employees will take that training to another company. And some companies deliberately try to steal employees from others that do good training. But that gets back to what Nick has written before about companies compensating their best talent the right way.

  14. I am fortunate that there are very few organizations that do the same thing as my division. So, even senior management is accepting of the need for training. As a hiring manager, I get to establish my unit’s training budget as well as the mix of internal vs external and content. I only had my number questioned once, and that was a concern that it was too low.

    Where my organization falls on its face is on the experience side. Corporately, it has been decided that we are top heavy and we can only hire entry level (preferred) and junior people. However, this was done without looking at the unit by unit, site by site demographics. Yes, at the lead site, we are stuffed with senior folks. Out in the hinterlands where my part of the organization is located, we have a leadership and experience gap. There is a difference between someone with 2 years of experience and someone with 20. I can train either with the right technical skills. But professional maturity and leadership don’t come from any class I have found.

  15. Thank you for this great post! It confirmed something I’ve strongly suspected for a long time, especially in talking with clients who keep running up against the “sorry, you’re not a perfect fit” reaction.

  16. When reading Bruce’s comment above, I was reminded of a company where I wanted to do training, even pay for it on my own to start, but my company would not give me any information as to what I was going to do in the future, so I could not pitch them that the training would be a payoff.

    Has Nick ever written a post about the turn around question to the old interview hack, “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” The turn-around should be “Where do *you* see me in 5 years?”

  17. As a former commercial/CRE lender we all saw the result of no training/knowledge/experience in 2008. Any and all standards of underwriting were eliminated rendering failed portfolios. Great business plan!! And apparently nobody has learned . . . yet.

  18. I am a chemist. We learn a wide variety of instrumentation (NMR, FTIR, GC/MS, LECO, ICP, Raman, LC, etc) and types of chemistry (physical, analytical, biochemical, organic, inorganic, theoretical, computational, etc) in our studies. We take physics, biology, math, computer science, technical writing, foreign languages, etc. However, when we get into the workforce, we tend to highly specialize, such as working with aluminum and associated lubricants and coatings for the beverage can industry, testing novel onco-drugs, treating fracking wastewater, or formulating chemical-mechanical-planarization slurries for the semiconductor industry. We go from macro to micro. Of course, much training is necessary. Also, even in the same industry, the approach to problems can be very different. Companies do not even utilize workers prior knowledge well. Companies must invest in their employees and train people with the right backgrounds, who have already proven their competence in learning diverse subject matter. Otherwise, they are looking for a needle in a haystack to fill such specific and narrowly-scoped jobs.

  19. @EEDR
    I’m glad to hear from someone in the science community and understand what you are saying–companies don’t want to train those who have the education but not experience. I have a bachelors in chemistry and no one would hire me because I did not have X years of experience in whatever they were hiring for. Of the three of us in my class who graduated with a chemistry degree, only one got a job in the industry. Others I know with this degree struggled to find work in the industry. What a shame.

  20. Accountant: What happens if we invest time and money training and developing our employees and they leave?

    CEO: What happens if we don’t, and they stay?

  21. The topic reminds me of this quote I once shared on my blog, came across it on one of the comment sections of some article about poverty/unemployment: “My dad (before he died) always told me stories about how he went to work for Mobile as a ditch digger and they trained him to be a geophysicist – then suggested that I do the same thing – because obviously companies still train minimum wage employees into scientists. Time was, a good work ethic, two hands, and an average brain was all you needed to hit the middle class. Now all that gets you is floor sales at Target.” (The only thing I’d correct is his Target reference, as you’re not even guaranteed that, I learned after being rejected myself from Target that they don’t hire anyone over the age of 35.)

  22. Nick,
    The current and supporting article, The Training Gap: How employers lose their competitive edge and Talent Shortage, Or Poor Management?, hit the nail on the head for me. I am a proponent of organizational training and the older worker specifically. In my workplace discussion, my passion is evident. Everyone can achieve success IF afforded the opportunity, training, and time.

    The changing dynamics within almost every industry in N. America, if not globally, points to the age bracket of the worker advancing. New entrants should not discount the availability of older workers. When I refer to older, my definition aligns with ADEA, 40 years and older. It is not the retirement age, but rather the willingness of the individual to remain engaged with the workforce. By 2018, the population aged 55 years and older is projected to increase by nearly 21 million, reaching 91.6 million (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009, p. 33). The reasons vary, but in my research I found a high percentage of the older workers want to stay in the workforce.

    My father is a perfect example. After learning how to use a computer coupled with his education/experience as an electrical contractor is employed, after retirement, in a career he loves. He mentions the only thing he dislikes is he did not find this opportunity when he was a younger man of 50, he is currently 71 years old. My dad is active and energetic, like many others in this category. He is innovative by nature that provides positive insight to new challenges.

    My focus in working with organizations is to realize training is relevant for all employees but critical for this population as they are the new talent pool and provide a dual benefit for the organization and society.

  23. I wonder why companies don’t look at training, particularly external training, as one of the best recruitment tools out there.

    Think about it. If you send a person to some training, especially industry specific training, who else is going to be there? People in your industry!

    What a better way to recruit than having your people talking with others over a beer after a day of training. It’s almost practically free since the cost is charged to the training budget.

    And the answer to the obvious question is that any company that truly rewards its people and is a good place to work would not be worried about their people being recruited away…..

  24. Sadly, interest in training is one of several Corporate pendulums one sees over time. At times I’ve seen Corporations get very interested in training, invest in it heavily, build some impressive programs, then walk away from it. Shoot it. Usually because business takes a hit in which case, the Training Department & it’s staff become an endangered species. Or the flip side, business is so hot, that people are needed so badly, managers don’t want to give up the productivity. They can’t live with “You don’t have them for 10 weeks, they’re in training. Shortsighted. Yes?
    But here’s a seemingly shocking philosophy that I picked up from the last company I worked at. Which we made sure people understood via their interviews. We didn’t think we had a responsibility to train them. We felt as far as advancing one’s knowledge and professionalism it was all about learning, not training. It was your responsibility to learn the skills you needed to advance your career and professionalism. If you had the passion, desire, interest in doing so, it was our responsibility to assist you in every way we could. Via tuition assistance, classes, challenging assignments, tools,access to the subject matter experts etc. If you think about it, it’s still all about knowledge transfer, except for the emphasis. We wanted to focus on the people who really wanted to learn, not populate classrooms with warm bodies, wasting the time of the SME’s And there were no artificial barriers on in house training..e.g. “not job related”. We recognized the one basic job description, ..make the company successful. If a bookkeeper had the intellectual curiosity to want to understand how a product worked…go for it.

    Related was our basic recruiting philosophy and building block…attitude trumps experience & education. If someone lacks a good work ethic and attitude, all discussions about training are moot, be it classroom or OJT.

    We were beefing up onboarding with some relevant classroom training that we wanted everyone to have to get people on the same page. ie. a 1st level consisting of Corporate level information we wanted all new hires to have, Department level information a Dept head wanted all new hires to that department to have, (e.g. Sales practices for Sales) and Section level information for all new hires in a particular group to have (e.g. assembly basics in Assembly). Beyond that, it got more specialized driven by learning needs as noted before hand)

    This was a work in progress when I left…but the key was that it was CEO driven. He believed that people learn all their lives and he gave a high priority to the program…for people who wanted to learn. But conversely did not feel obligated to spoon feed training classes to the uninterested. What was refreshing was that no manager would throw a body block on someone who wanted to learn something. While it may not seem job related everything connects at the company level.

    As to uniqueness and the quest for those special unique people that match your unique needs, aka the perfect hire.

    As a manager, and as a recruiter I’ve always followed and preached a rule of thumb. If your search for the “right candidate” exceeds the time for a seemingly less qualified, candidate passionate about their field, who learns quickly to ramp up to the need..you’re doing something terribly wrong with your recruitment. This is even more true if the company invests in a program that accelerates learning. I’ve seen it endless times, where companies underestimate the ability of people to learn, to change roles, to the detriment of the company. As Nick said, there’s absolutely no lack of skills, and in many cases the companies already have people who can step up to the line if they aren’t ruled out. and one common way they are ruled out by Corporate insistent habit of assuming formal education equals ability.

    AS to uniqueness in the marketplace. Unless you compete with idiots, your leading edge gets stale fast. The extraordinary becomes ordinary. To keep that edge you need people who learn quickly, welcome challenge, and who constantly push you to the edge and beyond as they drive to learn new things and try them out.

    Therein lies the weakness in these exacting job descriptions and insistence on finding people to meet them. Even if you find Mr or Ms Perfection, you’re finding someone who appears to be satisfied with zero challenges. Someone who is content to do what they are already doing. They aren’t likely the ones who will continue to make you unique in the market place.

  25. Normally, I read the comments carefully before chiming in, but before I even got a few sentences into today’s newsletter, the memory of standing face-to-face with an MBA who had been laid off about the same time I was laid off nearly 7 years ago came to mind. I’m not the sharpest tool in the box, but if I was running a company, I would consider an MBA a considerable investment in talent, especially if the company paid her tuition. She was laid off almost as soon as she secured her degree.

    No matter, don’t need her anymore, she’s redundant, she’s gotta go.

    Oops, we’re short of MBAs, anybody got any?

    My front-line crew had an average tenure of 14 years, and they were trained by me. It wasn’t easy, especially because I had to do a lot of it “undercover”. There is no “simple job”. Even digging ditches with a shovel takes training to dig ditches effectively.

    All companies are unique. Why do they think that they can acquire “off the shelf talent” to maintain their competitive edge?

    Grow yer own.

  26. Loved this post, Nick. I can’t begin to tell you how many jobs I’ve seen that want x years of experience using a specific accounting system. I have a bachelor’s in accounting, was a member of a business honor society, and have many years of experience (although over 10 years ago), but I can’t seem to find anyone interested in me. I’ve even applied for accounts payable jobs, probably the easiest job in the accounting career field, and nobody seems interested in me.

    I want to share a recent telephone screening. The screening was with a senior manager of recruiting. One of the questions she asked was if I had X years of experience working with Deltek. That requirement wasn’t in the job advertisement. When I told her that I did not have that particular expertise, she said they were looking for a candidate with that experience.

    I lost it a bit at that point and I asked her, how are all these companies wanting experienced candidates able to get such candidates when no company seems to be willing to take on someone who needs a little bit of training. I stumped her…she hesitated and then suggested temping. Temping would be an even worse environment for someone lacking a needed skill. Companies wanting temporary help usually aren’t interested in training someone. At some point, these companies are going to have to train people, but when?!

    I’ve been looking for a job for almost 2 years and it is one of the most frustrating experiences in my life. I have a database of every employer I’ve applied to and would be very hesitant to consider working for them in the future.

  27. I’ve been working in science publishing for 30 years and my current employer is the only one to offer any kind of training and development. There are a number of online and live courses to choose from and I am taking full advantage of them.

    Like all companies these days, mine is also looking to cut expenses. After reading this article, I’m glad they have the foresight to invest in their employees. This makes me feel like more than just a number on a balance sheet and helps me be more productive and a better fit where I am.

    As always, thanks for your interesting and eye-opening articles.

  28. Do companies no longer train employees because employees no longer stay with a company a long time as in the past? Do they believe it is not worth their investment because the investment will walk away? What I have read seems to indicate this may be a major factor in why companies don’t train anymore. On the other hand I connect a lot with local industry and I frequently meet workers who have been with their company for 15, 20, 25, … years. Which is true?

  29. Changing jobs is stressful. People don’t just walk away.

    They walk away from a frightened manipulative middle manager.
    They walk away from a lack of clear career direction.
    They walk away from cynical platitude delivering senior management.
    They walk away from a lack of regular feedback.
    They walk away from an underpaying job.
    They walk away from a job without any change in responsibility nor challenge.
    They walk away from a politically charged atmosphere which, in turn, is always is caused by weak incompetent management.
    They walk away from constant insecurity in their positions.
    They walk away from the toll their job takes on their home life.
    They walk away from the toll their job takes on their self-esteem.

    They never walk away because they were trained.

  30. Oh, man, you struck a nerve with this one. (Haven’t commented in a long time, but this one hit me just right.)

    I’m a contract programmer at a large health insurance company in flyover country, and I see stuff like this all the time, particularly in larger companies. The company where I’m currently working does training – the wrong kind for IT staff. They will send employees off for some feel-good touchy-feely stuff but provide no technical training. This is hardly the first time I’ve seen this at a large company. Years ago, when I was an employee at a Fortune 100 company, I went through “Seven Habits” training, but didn’t get a lick of technical training. Talk about throwing your money at the wrong problem, at least as far as IT is concerned.

    Interesting, how am I supposed to develop the skills the company demands if I’m not trained? Oh, that’s right, I’m supposed to pay for the training myself. Otherwise I could be replaced by an entry-level somebody who just so happens to have recent training in whatever the latest whiz-bang technology is on the market. Gee, then I guess my loyalty just went right out the window as well, and after I get finished with my own training that I had to purchase myself, I’ll simply move on to an employer who wants to pay me more.

    Any wonder there’s little loyalty left in the workforce today?

  31. @Tony: I think companies that invest in educating their employees see a nice ROI.

    @Ty: “Employers stopped training because no one stays long enough for the training to start paying dividends.”

    I don’t see any difference today in the degree to which people leave their jobs, for whatever reason. Cf. VP Sales’ comment. Though I appreciate that you might see this differently, what concerns me is that what you’re suggesting is cited by employers as justification for not investing in their employees. I think it’s a cheap excuse for being cheap and short-sighted.

    @Kevin Kane: I agree that in the absence of good training from an employer, it’s up to everyone to make sure they get their own.

    @Michael Enquist: You’re right: Education is part of compensation. So when a company argues that providing education just encourages the competition to poach newly trained people, the company can prevent that: By raising salaries and improving the quality of work life for its people. Sheesh. The “logic” used to excuse lack of training and development could be used to “prove” that your dog might be appropriated by your neighbor right after it completes obedience training. Give us all a break! :-)

    Also, to your Q about: “Has Nick ever written a post about the turn around question to the old interview hack, ‘Where do you see yourself in 5 years? The turn-around should be ‘Where do *you* see me in 5 years?'”

    The only response (retort?) I’ve suggested is, Do you expect your company will BE IN BUSINESS in 5 years?? But I like your suggestion – it’s sweet!

  32. If companies are scared talent will be poached once an employee is “trained,” the problem is not necessarily with said employee.

  33. Yeah, my employer had good education benefits. But it was up to individual managers whether to approve requests. I got a new manager tasked with cutting her budget. Therefore, everyone in her department got no education benefits. So, while it might be nice to shop a company, it might be better to shop the manager.

  34. @Nick I was just citing an employer’s short sighted excuse and not condoning it. Just above your comment I listed some of the reasons people really leave.

    Almost any corporate problem can be traced back to senior management indifference or incompetence. There is an old Jewish saying that a fish begins to rot from the head.

  35. Regarding the “commitment” excuse: Take a look around, most jobs today are *contract* positions, lasting six months to a year. Hardly what I’d consider a “commitment” by corporate America, so please don’t blame the workers who take these “scrap” jobs because they have no choice, and then accuse them of “jumping ship” when in fact it was the company that chose to not renew the contract. I haven’t had a permanent job since 2002. I contracted at Fidelity Investments for 3.5 years with no commitment from them in the end. They hired me again last January on a six month contract with the promise to convert me to perm status and they reneged on that. Enuff said.

    Regarding “poaching,” I am again compelled to quote a comment I once came across, “If the long-term unemployed are considered unemployable, and if employers intentionally shun them, this would mean that they can only add or replace experienced staff by raiding each other’s employees. Yet, isn’t job-hopping considered a negative trait in evaluating a prospective candidate? Somehow, the logic of the process fails me (never mind the unethical policies of ‘job creators’).”

  36. @marilyn: So you think the 2008 lending disaster could have been in part due to lack of training. That’s an interesting insight! Yah, training should be a part of business plans, especially when a company needs to explain why it’s omitting it.

    @EEDR @dlms: There’s always been a tendency by employers to discount general education and to complain about lack of specific skills when trying to fill jobs. (“Schools teach theory. We need hands-on skills on TODAY’S tools.”) But I think it’s always been a straw-man argument. I’ve never seen a case where solid, foundational education doesn’t help a person apply newly learned, specific skills more effectively. Specific training might be necessary, but it’s not always sufficient for long-term success. Employers are downright stupid to avoid training well-educated workers.

    @Bruce A:
    ==
    Accountant: What happens if we invest time and money training and developing our employees and they leave?

    CEO: What happens if we don’t, and they stay?
    ==
    That’s the best bit of sarcasm on this thread! :-)

    @BJ Older Wker Diversity: Thanks for reminding us that training and education are always a good thing. Your dad is an example of what happens when talent and experience meet education.

    @Chris: “I wonder why companies don’t look at training, particularly external training, as one of the best recruitment tools out there.”

    A number of years ago, MentorGraphics, a computer-aided design tools company, recognized an opportunity when jobs for electrical engineers (EEs) shriveled. The company sells training to users of its pricey tools. It announced a community service program: When seats in these training classes were empty, it would fill them with unemployed EEs, gratis. Mentor was up front: We know that if we invest in training you on our tools, when you get a job you’ll be more likely to spec our tools for your projects, or you’ll at least become part of our user base. Both outcomes pay off for Mentor, and the cost was minimal – those seats were empty anyway. The program was a sort of recruiting tool. Mentor got a ton of publicity for this, and built enormous good will. Bottom line: Training skilled workers is a smart thing to do.

    Finally, one of the best places to recruit is at training programs. Where else can you direct your efforts at a highly targeted audience? Of course, you can’t go in like a jerk with application forms. Best case, you go take the training yourself and mingle and make friends.

    @Don: Great little dissertation about the cost of talent, and the bigger cost of pretending perfect candidates are really perfect.

  37. When I started in the corporate world (1984), the company had a comprehensive professional development program that all front line managers were required to complete. Maximum ROI was achieved since curriculum theory was applied to the workplace challenges you brought to the courses. In addition, the peer network we developed was invaluable for building comradery. The win, learning drove the company to a new level of excellence. Unfortunately, over time, the ‘learning university’ was eventually abandoned.

    Bottom line, my learning takeaways were always insightful and provided background to overcome future challenges with the best takeaway, ‘never stop learning’. So, in the absence of company training, I began the practice of self-directed learning. This learning took many forms; books, seminars, college courses and peer groups. Some company sponsored, some not. Either way, I regarded the time spent and experience as an investment in my brand.

    Fast forward to now and I would say self-directed learning is more essential than ever. If you’re not learning to achieve a higher level of excellence, you’re becoming obsolete. I would not rely on my employer’s training and development program to define my success.

    Becoming excellent is the basis for what our country was built on, ‘ameritocracy’. Apathy towards learning and excellence will relegate your career.

  38. The underlying reason for corporate attitude and behavior related to training is very simple.

    If the corporate philosophy is that people are an asset, which grows more valuable over time via training and experience appreciates, you’ll find training is viewed as an investment. The value is viewed accumulatively

    If the corporate philosophy is that people/labor is an expense, training just increases the expense. the value is viewed currently measured by performance/productivity obtained for the expense.

    In the past Japan was a good example of the former. Japanese corporations never laid people off. On the surface it appeared to be benevolence per lifetime employment practices , but really it was business…they were keen aware of the investment, and hard-to-replace unique skills. Sadly in recent history they too have started down the lay-off path.

    Communities and cultures who take the investment route are populated by companies who ALL train because their mindsets dictate that you develop and appreciate the value of your workforce. So you find a highly trained labor pool and poaching or people leaving for training reasons is pretty much moot.

    The US with some isolated exceptions takes the latter route. Labor is an expense, and real men learn in business school to cut your losses. If you need to reduce costs for whatever reason..the fast fix is to cut labor. I’ve been involved in massive layoffs from both ends. While performance or some currently needed skill may be considered, I never heard a word about the overall value gained over the years of an employee.

    And I’ve been with some companies who’ve done some neat things with training, with some stellar training professionals. These are in place because some decision maker with some horsepower strongly believed in it. This works until the company gets in trouble..or the program loses its sponsor. Training quickly becomes history.

    In spite of some very sound arguments that if business slows down, say to an economic slump, a smart company turns it’s attention to upping the ante in training, process improvement, product development …to be ready for when business improves giving them an edge over the competition.

    People who’ve written about self training programs, are on the right track. Don’t leave it to some company.

    To be fair to the corporate side, I’ve also been underwhelmed by candidates who have no proven track record practically demanding to be trained, or who’s reasons for crappy performance is “I wasn’t trained”.

    And my work history is in the hi-tech world, where the attitude is somewhat “we don’t need no stinkin training, that’s for losers” If you’re really sharp you already know what you need, or you’ll find out.

  39. This is a very interesting topic. I also started my IT career in a large insurance company after finishing my Comp Sci degree. This company had a policy of hiring entry-level and starting the process in our rather extensive training department; we were trained in operating systems essentials, languages, and corporate policies and protocols, after which we were graduated to production and became entry-level code monkeys.

    It was a great system; by the time they started as developers everyone had a good idea of the technologies involved, and how to manage themselves as professionals. I enjoyed the educational aspect so much that after spending some time as a programmer I became one of their trainers.

    We were the live front line for HR – anyone whose CV looked good was invited to come in and we, the trainers, interviewed prospective employees, and recommended them for hire. We trained them, managed them, and got them ready to feel comfortable and useful in our shop.

    The company was committed to keeping its staff well-trained and current. The training department constantly trained itself and developed in-house coursework for our developers. Experienced developers came back to training to augment their skills and to train in specific technologies required for new projects.

    As a result of this we had a very stable, productive, and committed workforce, with very low turnover. It was an exemplary system, and it’s a shame that this model has fallen into disuse.

  40. @Rick: I’ll bet these comparably competent staff were easier to work with in a more qualitatively productive environment. Now “productivity” is graded by how few employees are used, regardless of poor outcomes. Makes little sense :(

  41. @Ty: Outstanding list.

    With the steady stream of humanity flowing through my company’s doors, we don’t have time for exit interviews, but I’m sure many of them would check the box marked “all of the above”.

    There is no such thing as “the good old days”, but in my previous job, I was fortunate to work for a company for three decades that did not allow politics or for people to mistreat each other. Boy, were we weird!

    Then a for real corporation bought us, and I learned very quickly what the inside of hell looked like. Of course, they realized what I was observing–I was the first to be severed.

  42. @ Looking Too Long: Just keep going till you find it. Good companies hide too well. You just have to sniff them out.

    @ Bruce A: I’d seen that statement over the years. Thanks for the reminder.

    @Nancy Sundheim: I’m actually beginning to track down that info. My memory (minus decimal points) puts the general workforce tenure at just under five years. Over age 50 or 55 (memory deficit–sorry) the tenure grows to just under 10 years. Older folks stay longer. As for the adage that old dogs can’t learn new tricks, the neurology of dogs and humans is quite different. Old folks now dominate the internet, and people over 50 or 55 (once again, sorry for the memory lapse) are a majority or rather large percentage of Apple customers.

    This just in from the bureau of labor of labor statistics: 7 out of 10 pre-retirees expect to work not only past retirement, but into their 70’s and 80’s and beyond. This group will be the fastest growing segment of the workforce in the next decade. In the past 7 years, workers aged 55-plus accounted for virtually all workforce growth.*

    I think this is what they call a game-changer, and even though I’m nearly 65, I never saw this coming.

    To get back to the question, the tenure at my 30-year gig was 14 years in the warehouse, the same or slightly higher in the office.

    At my present gig, I have 5 years, and I was the go-to guy when I had 6 months. Counting returning employees (a frightening concept–that means things outside Extreme Purgatory must be really bad), out of 150 people perhaps 15 have more than 5 years. More than half of those are supervisors or leads. This is real ball-park of, of course. My daughter has been working 5 years for a company about the same size. Most of her co-workers have been there 20 or 30 years. And, yes, they have a lot of training, on all levels.

    Go figure.

    *All worked up: Finding purpose in retirement
    JoAnn Abraham [local Sunday Paper in the Mid-west 11-29-2015]

  43. @Nick: the “five year” question is unnervingly accurate. After my 30-year gig, the guys that bought us alienated our 30 year customer base, and folded their tents in less than 5 years when said customers left for the competition. The start-up I worked for after I was expelled from my 30-year gig went belly up just under 5 years after they dumped me. Extreme Purgatory survived a couple of rough spots in the five years that I’ve been here, but will be facing a big challenge in about six months. Is this a trend, or just my personal experience? Is modern business everywhere on a five-year precipice?

  44. @marilyn, it really was a good work environment, very productive, and relatively low-stress. Interesting people, too: the company did not require serious academic work in comp sci, but administered a fairly comprehensive logic exam to all applicants. You passed that test, we would train you. We all started out knowing (ok, with introductions to :-) ) the same basic technologies, a good idea as to what to expect as professionals, and the feeling that the company saw us as valuable assets. The pace of work was very reasonable, it was an insurance company after all, and whenever there was a technological bottleneck we sent our developers for additional training.

    There was an explicit policy of developing personnel – you were expected to put in some time programming, but also expected to advance up the hierarchy, either on a technical or an administrative track.

    I enjoyed meeting and working with many of the people I started with in training, and remained friends/colleagues throughout my career there. (and after being a trainer for several years, I think I knew most of the very large contingent of developers and managers there!)

  45. @marilyn: So you think the 2008 lending disaster could have been in part due to lack of training. That’s an interesting insight! Yah, training should be a part of business plans, especially when a company needs to explain why it’s omitting it.

    @EEDR @dlms: There’s always been a tendency by employers to discount general education and to complain about lack of specific skills when trying to fill jobs. (“Schools teach theory. We need hands-on skills on TODAY’S tools.”) But I think it’s always been a straw-man argument. I’ve never seen a case where solid, foundational education doesn’t help a person apply newly learned, specific skills more effectively. Specific training might be necessary, but it’s not always sufficient for long-term success. Employers are downright stupid to avoid training well-educated workers.

    @Bruce A:
    ==
    Accountant: What happens if we invest time and money training and developing our employees and they leave?

    CEO: What happens if we don’t, and they stay?
    ==
    That’s the best bit of sarcasm on this thread! :-)

    @BJ Older Wker Diversity: Thanks for reminding us that training and education are always a good thing. Your dad is an example of what happens when talent and experience meet education.

    @Chris: “I wonder why companies don’t look at training, particularly external training, as one of the best recruitment tools out there.”

    A number of years ago, MentorGraphics, a computer-aided design tools company, recognized an opportunity when jobs for electrical engineers (EEs) shriveled. The company sells training to users of its pricey tools. It announced a community service program: When seats in these training classes were empty, it would fill them with unemployed EEs, gratis. Mentor was up front: We know that if we invest in training you on our tools, when you get a job you’ll be more likely to spec our tools for your projects, or you’ll at least become part of our user base. Both outcomes pay off for Mentor, and the cost was minimal – those seats were empty anyway. The program was a sort of recruiting tool. Mentor got a ton of publicity for this, and built enormous good will. Bottom line: Training skilled workers is a smart thing to do.

    Finally, one of the best places to recruit is at training programs. Where else can you direct your efforts at a highly targeted audience? Of course, you can’t go in like a jerk with application forms. Best case, you go take the training yourself and mingle and make friends.

    @Don: Great little dissertation about the cost of talent, and the bigger cost of pretending perfect candidates are really perfect.

    @Christy: “So, while it might be nice to shop a company, it might be better to shop the manager.”

    What’s that line? “It’s the people, Stupid!” :-) I think we all fail to realize this sometimes. Of course, what happens when we join a company because the manager seems great, and shortly the manager departs? None of this is easy.

    @Ty: “@Nick I was just citing an employer’s short sighted excuse and not condoning it. Just above your comment I listed some of the reasons people really leave.”

    Sorry! I misread you! Your other comments made it clear.

    @sighmaster: Employers rarely play by the rules they expect employees to follow.

  46. I’m a bit late to the discussion, but find this to be one of my favorite “best of Nick” Q&As. This is a topic of perennial concern and discussion in academia because too many people think college equals job training. In some cases, it does, and I can point to the programs in automotive technology, dental hygiene, massage therapy, and other “hands-on” programs offered by the community college at which I now work. But for most, college does NOT equal job training, and for employers to make having a college degree a requirement to answer phones, maintain a boss’ schedule, and for other jobs where the training is best done by the employer is stupid.

    I agree: today there is little to no training at all. Many employers want a new hire to be able to do the job perfectly and profitably the second her butt hits the chair without any training, without any mentoring. This means that they want someone who has done exactly the same job somewhere else, and to be happy to do it for less money and no benefits.

    I, too, have heard employers complain about employees leaving (so why bother to train them). People won’t leave after being trained IF there are opportunities to learn new things and grow in a job, IF there are opportunities for advancement (most managers don’t want to remain in the same job forever, so why do they expect their hires to be content to stay in the same job?), IF they are treated with dignity and respect (many of the things Ty listed).

    Sure, some will leave regardless of what an employer does–an employee may quit in order to be the trailing wife (moving because her husband’s job requires them to move), to go back to school, to start a family and raise children, to take care elderly or sick parents and/or in-laws. Those are the kinds of reasons for which there is no control.

    It is expensive to train workers, but what is the cost of ignorance and untrained or poorly trained workers? Mistakes (that might cost the company profits and/or fines), delay in the amount of time it takes to complete work/projects, and products getting out into the market without being properly tested.

  47. @marybeth: “Many employers want a new hire to be able to do the job perfectly and profitably the second her butt hits the chair without any training, without any mentoring. This means that they want someone who has done exactly the same job somewhere else, and to be happy to do it for less money and no benefits.” I really wonder about managers with expectations like that. I mean, there are usually a fair number of people involved in talking about a position before it’s advertised, aren’t there? Does not even one of them point out the obvious — “What exactly are we offering which would give anybody who had the skills we’re demanding a reason to want to work here?”

    It seems that not being able to put oneself in the candidate’s shoes even so far as to realize that you’re not offering anything which would remotely tempt someone with the skills you’ve demanded is a side effect of lack of empathy, which in turn is a side effect of not really engaging on a person-to-person level with anybody “beneath” you economically or in corporate rank. If you don’t think of someone as a live human being, with their own needs, desires and goals, then of *course* you’ll think you can just write up your wish list and advertise it in the Best Places, and wait for the candidates to beat a path to your door and beg for the privilege of serving you. It’s what you do with everything else you buy; why shouldn’t buying livestock (er, I mean talent) be any different? In order to recognize what’s wrong with that hiring system, it takes the recognition that A) *you* wouldn’t have any interest in a job which had similar demands to what you’re doing now, but paid less and with fewer benefits; and B) the candidates you want to recruit are humans like yourself, so they probably won’t react too differently.

    What really scares me is the number of companies which are choosing to turn away from hiring voluntary employees altogether, at least for positions which involve relatively noncreative work. The inmate workforces rented out by the for-profit prison system are expanding by leaps and bounds, and some of the biggest companies in a huge range of industries are using them. I’m honestly afraid that the management culture has decided that the way to deal with uppity workers who insist on being treated better than slaves is to rent slaves, period.

    We need more employee-owned companies. Desperately.

  48. Nick, here’s a decent article on the conundrum of labor matching.

    It’s about the UK market, but parallels for the US are obvious.

    http://bankunderground.co.uk/2015/12/02/finding-a-match/

  49. @Naomi: I have wondered the same thing. I think, despite the glowing unemployment statistics (now at 5% and this will trigger a rise in interest rates by the Fed), there are still too many unemployed and under-employed people (not counted in the statistics because they’ve been unemployed for longer than 99 weeks, because they’ve given up/stopped looking for work, because they’ve gone back to school, etc.) and it is still an employer’s market. For the managers who think like this, I’ve noticed that their attitude is that people should be grateful to be working (for them) period and if they’re not, then there is someone else to take their places who will be grateful for what few scraps they offer.

    I think you are right about some managers not being able to put themselves in candidates’ shoes (lack of empathy, lack of understanding) is part of the problem. The other part is the big shift in the overall culture–employees are seen as “units”, as “costs”, not as people, which makes management even less likely to see them as human beings or to be able to relate to them.

    And I think you’re right regarding your comment about social and economic (and corporate) hierarchy.

    I hadn’t heard about companies choosing to use prisoners for non-creative work, but that is neither a surprising outcome nor an unexpected outcome. When your wages are too low to tempt skilled Americans and you can’t bring in enough H1B visa holders from foreign countries to work cheaply, then why not turn to the prison population? I am sure that the prisoners are even cheaper and easier to exploit than H1B visa holders. People get angry when their jobs get outsourced to India and China, or when you are required to train your replacement from India, who will be paid half your salary (which means more profit for the owners), but prisoners are viewed as leeches on “the system”, and I bet most people would think that making them work is a good thing because they’re being fed (3 hots) and housed (a cot) on the taxpayer’s dime.

    Yes, we do need more employee-owned companies, but I’d also like to see a shift back to a more balanced, more equitable relationship between owners and workers. It was not always so skewed.

  50. Coincidentally, a segment ran on NPR Radio this week that addressed falling wages due to technology replacing labor. In order to reverse this trend, the author prescribes old fashioned, on-the-job training.

    James Bessen is an economist that invented desktop publishing which put thousands of people out of jobs. On the other hand, the displaced knowledge workers that were re-trained, self-trained and continually trained are now some of the highest paid, most productive workers.

  51. I’ve read Peter Cappelli’s book, and it is spot on. If anything, he understates the severity of the hiring jam.

    Very revealing from Peter’s WSJ article that companies fill 66% of their vacancies from outside vs 10% twenty five years ago. Is there any better indication companies no longer develop employees? Why think outsiders are than insiders? And Peter’s comment about companies expecting precisely trained and experienced employees to just pop out of some magical supply line couldn’t be better.

    I’ve never had any training to speak of for any of my jobs. But I usually had some time to ramp up learning curves before producing deliverables. Except my last job, where the training consisted of sink or swim immersion, bad documentation, mentoring that wasn’t, and general lack of guidance. No time for learning curves there. Yet even subject matter experts need training in the company way. Unfortunately, too much is tribal knowledge that must be picked up by osmoses and serendipity.

    Its easy to say employees should train themselves. But how? And what? You can’t learn everything, and some things aren’t readily available outside corporate environments.

  52. @Stevie Wonders – That’s an interesting point about tribal knowledge. This knowledge is lost when experienced employees are laid off, eliminating the opportunity for informal training among colleagues.

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