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Collaborating to Fill Skills Gaps

A new report that links effective talent mobility with economic growth notes that organizations may find it necessary to collaborate with external organizations to create a skilled labor force. Experts also note that organizations should expand their definition of talent mobility beyond expat assignments and consider instead job mobility -- moving jobs to where the people are.

Friday, March 9, 2012
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On this long and winding road to economic recovery, the skills gap in the world's labor force is the pothole that impedes progress, and all private and public entities -- indeed, even competitors -- must work together on talent-mobility initiatives to smooth the way forward.

At least that's the sentiment behind a report by the World Economic Forum -- in conjunction with New York-based consultancy Mercer -- that calls talent mobility "much more than" just international assignments.

"Talent mobility is an enabler for private companies, governments, academic institutions and NGOs to close skills gaps and remedy talent shortages while also moving more people to employability and employment," according to Talent Mobility Good Practices -- Collaboration at the Core of Driving Economic Growth.

Haig Nalbantian, senior partner and co-leader of Mercer's Workforce Science Institute who worked on the report, says one of the first positive steps an organization can take in regard to its talent-mobility challenges is to broaden its definition of the term.

"Traditionally," he says, "talent mobility was only associated with expat assignments ... But that's too narrow a definition these days."

The other side of people mobility, he says, is job mobility: moving jobs to where the people are.

"It's really surged in the last decade," he says. "In 2010, 2 million jobs were created through foreign direct investment, jobs associated with organizations that go into other countries and invest there."

Nalbantian says that "jobs-to-people component" is trending upward, and Mercer does a lot of site-selection work to help organizations decide which labor markets to enter.

"It's been very striking to us over the past decade to see how 'workforce' has moved up the list of criteria to decide" what regions to move into, he says.

And often in such cases, he says, "firms that would otherwise be competitors are adopting a broader mind-set that 'the talent pool won't grow unless we collaborate.' "

He cites Wal-Mart's move into Brazil, where "perhaps the biggest impediment is a lack of talent to drive their business plans. And it's not the type of talent that you can import, but the type you have to find locally."

In order to build that talent base, he says, the retailer collaborated with in-country school systems and local government agencies to train young people for future work in retail.

"Some people in remote areas who may have never heard of or dreamed of a retail career, are now being trained to be good employees," he says. "And they do this with substantial numbers of young folks, knowing full well only a small percentage will become Wal-Mart employees."

He says Wal-Mart wouldn't be as effective developing local talent if it targeted just its own potential employees.

"They need to collaborate with school systems and they need to accept that their competitors may benefit as well," he says.

Barry Hoy, an associate professor of human resource management at St. Leo University in St. Leo, Fla., says collaborations between competitors can happen on U.S. soil as well, but only if all parties agree to the spirit of the venture.

"I think the merger of ideas and approaches can be beneficial for all participants," he says. "I saw this occur in the construction industry in southeastern Virginia some years ago, as competing construction companies worked together to develop sources of quality hires.

As the training director for one of those construction companies at the time, "we worked together in job fairs, heavy-equipment rodeos and high-school program sponsorships," he says. "We all gained. But that gain was based upon real cooperation in our efforts."

In addition, communication is the key to any successful collaboration, says Keith Seven Chan, an enterprise architect at the Better Business Network in Tarrytown, N.Y., noting that when organizations don't work well with your partners, it is transparent.

"Solutions like web conferencing, online chat, screen sharing, and online workspaces have helped minimize what's normally lost in translation," he says. "Most of these programs offer options to refer back to previous conversations or projects, and leave a paper trail that can be traced back in finite detail."

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And while organizations may reap numerous benefits from collaborating externally, Mercer's Nalbantian urges organizations to look at internal mobility issues, as well.

"Pay-for-performance seems to motivate employees and managers," he says. "But, as a manager, if my bonus is contingent on how well my team does -- and I have a high-talent team -- then I would be loath to let a person go to another part of the organization, even if that move would maximize results for the company.

"That's what's called an externality in economics," he says, "and organizations need to review their incentive programs through that lens and wonder if they are optimizing at too local a level to prevent the right talent from getting to the right place in an organization.

"We may be hurting ourselves," he says, "and not even realize it."

The Mercer/World Economic Forum report notes that "talent-mobility practices can effectively boost labor supply, stimulate labor demand or better equilibrate supply and demand through changes in the cost or quantity of labor -- all of which lead to growth."

But, it notes "there is no globally recognized platform for addressing talent mobility challenges and exchanging practices and experiences among various stakeholders" -- and often the perspective of business organizations is ignored.

"This causes a frustrating disconnect between the public sector's urging for the creation of new jobs and the private sector's struggles to find the skilled employees it needs," the authors write.

The report authors found about 200 "good practices" for talent mobility by sending more than 4,000 questionnaires to practitioners and experts in academia and the private and public sectors in 45 countries.

Those practices were then supplemented with in-depth interviews and research to gain clarity, and when the researchers were done, they had narrowed their selections down to 50 good practices and analyzed five cases, including Wal-Mart's groundbreaking work in Brazil.

The decision to identify "good practices" instead of "best practices" was deliberate, as "best practices" often "connotes an absolute and inflexible standard," the report states.

"After all, the best practices of today may not work tomorrow -- or may not be best for all constituencies in all geographies. 'Good' practices, on the other hand, are flexible and adaptable -- solutions from which everyone learn, borrow and build better practices."

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