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Workforce Strategy Lacking Among Most Employers

A new survey finds many organizations either lacking -- or struggling to implement -- a workforce strategy. Experts say HR professionals must be willing to expand their thinking about what it takes to develop their talent pipeline.

Monday, September 24, 2012
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While experts contend that workforce strategy planning may be increasingly critical in the "war for talent," the majority of global firms don't view it as a priority.

According to a recent ManpowerGroup global survey conducted by the company's strategic workforce consulting business, 78 percent of surveyed employers either lack a workforce strategy or struggle to implement one. Globally, only 38 percent of the respondents regard human resources as a full business partner.

Jonas Prising, ManpowerGroup's president of the Americas in Milwaukee, says that the survey results may be an indication of a "yet to be recognized but very strong link between the availability of the right talent with the right skills, with an organization's ability to successfully execute its business strategy."

"That is the prime driver behind the need for a workforce strategy," says Prising, who adds that HR managers responding to the survey may not realize the growing trends that make such strategic initiatives critical.

"There is a bifurcation in the workforce -- first, there is highly desirable talent that is hotly sought after, both in emerging and developed markets, with the kinds of skills that are getting increasingly hard to find," he says.

"But at the same time there is record high unemployment, particularly for youth in both Europe and the United States, and there are a lot of people not fully employed in emerging markets," Prising says.

"Those lacking skills have a much harder time breaking into the market."

As such, the war for skilled talent in both emerging and developed markets is becoming increasingly tough, at the same time organizations are continuing to demand more from existing employees to further increase productivity, he says. Therefore, it's critical for HR leaders to develop a workforce strategy that details how the organization will plan for growth, by deploying existing employees and either hiring other full-time workers or temporary staff, project managers and independent contractors. Moreover, such plans also need to detail how the organization will staff up in each of its markets across the world.

"Many larger organizations have workforce strategies in place, but the value of workforce strategies for smaller organizations may be even more important, as the value of each of their employees is greater, depending on what they do," he says. "Big organizations have thousands more people and therefore a little bit more flexibility, but I found it interesting in the survey that there was quite significantly less penetration in small to medium-sized businesses."

Julian L. Alssid, executive director of the Workforce Strategy Center, a national consulting think tank in Providence, R.I., says many companies believe they don't need to develop a workforce strategy because they believe they can rely on "tried and true" channels for finding talent. However, many of the same organizations are finding it increasingly harder to find enough people with the types of skills they need.

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"HR professionals need to have a willingness to expand their thinking about what it takes to develop their talent pipeline," Alssid says. "Doing this well often means working with partners they may not historically work with -- like community colleges and other kinds of education and training organizations."

Levi Segal, an associate partner at Aon Hewitt in New York, says part of the reason why there isn't widespread adoption of workforce strategies is that many HR leaders wrongly believe they need to focus the same amount of effort and resources on all possible organizational objectives, such as developing the right perks and benefits to attract top talent, developing an internal talent pipeline to groom future leadership, and creating operational efficiencies. As such, developing workforce strategies in their minds can be a daunting task.

"But the greatest HR departments prioritize these things and do one or two things great," Segal says. "I actually think the C-suite wants them to come back with an HR strategy that is aligned with the organization's business strategy."

For example, if an organization is growing rapidly in Asia or Latin America, its HR leaders might focus less on operational efficiency in those markets and more on doing what it takes to attract key candidates with the right skill sets there.

"If HR leaders prioritize, then that's what's going to get them a seat at the table," he says.

Moreover, HR leaders should not think of workforce strategy planning as "boiling the ocean" -- in other words, not every single position within the organization needs to be considered in a plan."The best HR departments focus on a few critical positions when it comes to workforce planning, and then they move on," Segal says.

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