Closing the Skills Gap

Dr. David DeLong

President of Smart Workforce Strategies

Dr. David DeLong is a well-known author, keynote speaker and consultant who helps leaders implement solutions to critical skill shortages. He is President of Smart Workforce Strategies and also a research fellow at the MIT AgeLab. He can be reached at

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Solving The Skills Gap Starts With Prioritizing Talent Risks

The notion of the “skills gap” is widely accepted in many industries today, but labeling the problem does little to solve it. Ultimately, shortages of essential talent must be addressed at multiple levels – by the industry and related educational institutions, by individual organizations, and by managers who need to staff specific roles.
In the short-term, one of the most effective things managers can do to reduce the impacts of critical skill shortages is to pinpoint which talent risks are hurting the company most. Since researching our book, The Executive Guide to High-Impact Talent Management, we’ve identified seven talent risks that directly contribute to capability gaps which increase costs and limit the ability to grow your business.

How to Prioritize Talent Risks
Here is an exercise you can use with colleagues to prioritize where you need to focus resources to begin implementing solutions for critical skill shortages. But first, the seven talent risks that directly impact performance are:
Bad Hires – This is the number one headache cited by managers and it’s a mistake most feared because of the immediate cost to the organization and the negative impact on morale. Hiring people who lack the capabilities or personality to meet the demands of a specific role has immediate implications for the rest of the department.
Poor Onboarding – Lots of organizations today admit to having poor programs to quickly orient and train new hires. Too much time and resources are wasted when firms don’t set up effective processes needed to make new employees productive faster.
Lack of Employee Development – This is an increasingly common problem because there is so much to learn in many entry-level jobs, both hard and soft skills. And many firms are not set up to train employees in essential areas like LEAN, Six Sigma, leader¬ship and change management, to name a few. It’s unrealistic to expect entry-level employees to have these soft skills, which I also find are sorely lacking in many veteran managers.
Unwanted Turnover – This is often a by-product of unclear career paths, limited growth opportunities, cherry picking by other companies, and changing values of younger workers who may feel less committed to the field. The costs of recruiting and training replacements are substantial.
Poor Performance Management – One surprising finding from our research has been how often senior management tolerates poor performance and how long it takes leaders to rectify it. This is costly not only in terms of subpar performance of the individual, but it is also likely to encourage unwanted turnover among high performers who become frustrated working with unproductive colleagues.
Loss of Critical Knowledge – Veteran employees often have essential knowledge about systems, processes and practices that can be lost due to retirements and unexpected turnover. Failing to recognize, transfer and retain knowledge crucial to the department’s ability to function is a sure way to create serious knowledge gaps.

Use the matrix at right to facilitate a discussion in your organization about where your three most serious needs are. Have colleagues fill it out separately and then discuss the differences in your perceptions to reach consensus on priorities.
Since researching my book, Lost Knowledge: Confronting the threat of an Aging Workforce, I’ve identified the shortage of key capabilities as a widespread problem in many professions and industries today. Health care, advanced manufacturing and information technology are just three fields struggling to find talent. So, even if you are not experiencing skill shortages today, increasingly, you will be competing with many other organizations and professions to attract and retain skilled employees.
Resolving critical skill shortages must become a strategic priority for top management. Diagnosing your specific talent risks is the first step.

Dr. David DeLong is a well-known author, keynote speaker and consultant who helps leaders implement solutions to critical skill shortages. He is president of Smart Workforce Strategies and also a research fellow at the MIT AgeLab. He can be reached at Follow him @knowledgedoc.

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