Articles // December 15,2021

Talent Management – 3 Models To Help You Address The Skills Gap

By Swetha Sitaraman

I was recently assisting my boss with a speech that he had to give in one of the Big 4 management consulting firms. We were looking into the future of talent and how the pandemic had affected organisations and people, and the impact this would have on talent in the years to come.

As a talent and people enablement organisation, our job is to help clients gain better perspectives to address change and thrive. I pored over various research reports, studies, white papers, surveys and articles. I found many insightful points around technology, hybrid working, reskilling and upskilling, recruitment and performance management. Among these were three suggestions or solutions that caught my eye.

As organisations emerge from the pandemic, they have begun to realise that the focus must urgently shift to talent management. An article by McKinsey talks about the increased pressure on organizations to respond to three ongoing long-term talent trends. These include the (a) Scarcity of On-demand skills, which has been made worse by digitization and automation (b) The ability to respond quickly to changes and uncertainty, and (c) The requirement of flexibility.

The article proceeds to state that the best way to address all three challenges is by reskilling and utilising employee’s existing capabilities better. To make this change, some organisations are choosing what’s called a ‘Flow to Work’ operating model. In this model, people having similar skillsets rather than similar business functions are pooled together. This makes it easier for organisations to access the capabilities and expertise that they need. There is a leader for these pools who match requirements with skillsets and deploy workers based on the high priority work areas.

Other reports that I read highlighted the need to recruit for skill and not for the role. A Gartner report stated that only 16% of new hires possess the skills needed to do their current roles. Traditionally, most recruiters would hire to replace the departing employee with someone similar plus a few additional ‘good to have’ skills. However, these traditional recruiting strategies cannot keep up with the shortage of skills and evolving skill requirements anymore.

In another report on the future of work trends, Gartner mentions that 32% of full-time employees will be replaced by contingent workers. Organisations will start using contingent workers to reduce cost and to supplement staff. Contingent employment means a worker’s position in the company is not permanent. They are hired on a temporary basis to complete a project or during busier periods/seasons. Freelancers and contract workers would also fall into this category.

As I read the above points, my thoughts went back to my previous employment, where these concepts had been in play for over 15 years. We had a successful and deeply embedded ‘Flow to Work’ model or flexible deployment (although we did not call it by those names) based on skillsets. We moved workers between teams depending on volume of work or if there was a shortage of workers due to absence. Upskilling and reskilling was a regular affair. We also recruited for skill and not for the role and we hired contingent workers every year to tide over our busy season.

So how did we make the ‘Flow to Work’ model work?

 In 2016, due to budget and staffing cuts, two teams with nothing in common, were downsized and merged and the two team leaders (one of them was me) were asked to ‘figure it out’. Faced with a smaller team, our knowledge of the ‘Flow to Work’ model got us working quickly. We made a consolidated list of all the different roles, tasks and responsibilities and the various skills required to complete them. We realised that both teams had tasks that required the same skillsets. We combined these and gave it to the individual who we felt would be best suited for the job. We did the same for all the other roles and responsibilities. With some reskilling and upskilling, the result was increased productivity, and a smooth functioning of the combined teams which now worked as one unit under a new name.

The ‘Flow to Work’ model has several advantages. It makes skills available on demand and helps overcome skill shortage. It allows organisations or departments to respond to rapid internal and external changes, as was the case above. These flexible teams and individuals can be tailored to closely match skill to work with each individual playing a different role in different teams.

Adopting this model need not be a company-wide decision. Adoption can be on a smaller scale within departments, teams, projects, functions, positions or a mix of a few of these. Once done, common skillsets can be identified within these departments or teams. For example – we had two teams performing different functions, but at the entry level, they both required people who were proficient in typing. These team members were trained to work in both teams and moved across teams depending on the volume of work.

Once common skillsets are identified, think of reskilling and upskilling requirements. A skillsets assessment can sometimes reveal gaps, and these should be filled through training. Assessment and training should be a continuous process and not a limited-edition exercise.

Who decides how, when and who should be deployed?

We had a manager who would perform this role. The team leaders would pass on their requirements to the manager. This would include work progress details, staffing information, deadlines, priority tasks and so on. The manager would then look through the data, assess priorities and critical work areas and then move staff to where they were most required. Close coordination and teamwork is essential in order to make this work. Continuous communication also helps the manager identify upskilling or reskilling requirements, or where additional recruitment might be needed. Some organisations dedicate a staff to this job whilst others take a more technology driven approach. For example, Tata Communications has an internal matching platform where individuals can register their skills. Team leaders could then search for talent that meets their needs.

How do you recruit for skill and not for the role?

For many years, recruiters have been hiring using a job description, and although this is good to have on the table, it has become necessary to hire for skill. The hiring manager and recruiter need to work together to identify the key skills required to perform the role. These should be stack ranked from essential skills to ‘good to have’ skills.

Don’t just interview the candidates but assess their skills. Although aptitude tests are still used, assessing for skills has largely been disregarded due to lack of time and convenience. We need to bring these back. Based on the stack ranked skills, discover (or invent) tests or methods that would help you shortlist the best candidates for the final interview. This would also help to separate the claims from the reality. Some methods that we used included –

  • Skills tests – This may seem old fashioned and is often reserved only for technical roles. But they serve the purpose and there are many tests for non-technical roles as well. In the previous example where we needed people who had high typing speeds, we would administer a typing test. We also had tests to check a candidate’s attention to detail as this was a skill required in another role.
  • Conducting role plays – This is a great way to check the candidate’s knowledge, technique, communication and situational fluency. Send salespeople a scenario a day before the interview and ask them to prepare a pitch. Ask the HR candidate to interview someone, while you observe.
  • Case Studies – We would provide the candidate with a scenario which they would analyse and provide solutions for. Our case studies were tailor made to assess the specific skillsets required for the job. This could include analytical ability, problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, communication, flexibility, Intuition, Empathy, etc.

When you finally get to interviewing the candidate, refrain from asking redundant questions. Ten years after graduating, I remember attending an interview where I was asked an academic question from a post graduate paper that had no relevance to the job I was interviewing for. And contrary to popular belief, the question “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” does not give you insights into a candidate’s planning skills, ambitions or if they will stay in the job. Given the speed at which the job market and technology is changing, these outdated questions will not help assess anything other than the candidate’s ability to deliver a practiced response or think of a story on their feet.

Instead ask questions to assess them for personality and competency.

  • Can you tell us of a time when you had to make a difficult decision?
  • Have you ever met resistance when implementing a new idea, how did you convince your team/boss?
  • When did you feel the most empowered in your role?
  • Are you aware of your biases?

Questions like these will make the applicant think deeply and turn the interview into a discussion, thus providing more insights.

What about contingent workers?

We had busy and lean periods. The busy periods were between April and June and again from August to October. It did not make business sense to hire people who would otherwise be idle during the lean season. So every year, we hired contingent staff (or temporary staff as we called them) who would join us from March to October. In today’s gig economy, there are several advantages to hiring contingent workers, which include –

  • Less financial obligations as they are not offered all the benefits that a full-time employee would get like health insurance or retirement plans.
  • No tax responsibilities as the worker would have to make their own tax arrangements.
  • If they do a great job and are available, it would be an advantage to hire them again the following year. Since they are already familiar with the work, they only need a small amount of reskilling thus saving valuable time and resources.
  • They can be recruited to fill skill gaps. Sometimes, freelancers come with a wider range of experience that the organisation can benefit from.

This, however, does not mean there were no issues. Some of the problems that we faced with contingent workers included a lack of commitment and/or sudden departures. We resolved these by treating our temporary staff fairly and equal to full time workers. We involved them in all social events, and we had several non-monetary rewards. To prevent sudden departures, the HR department drew up contracts that included a short notice period and we provided them with upskilling opportunities. Many of our temporary staff returned year after year, and some were offered permanent positions based on their performance and the organisation’s need. Others were able to obtain jobs elsewhere using this experience. HR departments would have to create a non-traditional workforce plan for contingent workers, which includes recruitment, upskilling, onboarding, compensation, etc.

Whether you choose to adopt a ‘Flow to Work’ model, recruit for skill or hire contingent workers, all of them require significant changes in the way different departments function. Most importantly it requires a shift in mindset. These models are not new. Large organisations like Procter & Gamble have been using ‘Flow to Work’ for two decades. Amazon hires more contingent workers during the holiday season.

Talent decisions made now by the leadership team will separate the best employers from the pack and it starts with HR departments becoming less transactional and more strategic. These models provide value and help companies prepare for the future of work where flexibility, plugging skill gaps and quick responses to a crisis will be more important than ever.

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