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Skills gap? Grow your own

Eric GundlachIf you’re a small-business owner who is having difficulty finding key talent, you’re not alone. Despite high unemployment, there is a shortage of qualified people in a wide range of occupations across the country. Several key trends suggest these skills gaps are going to get worse.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development indicates that the skill level of the labor force in the U.S. has fallen well behind that of our peer countries. Most people know we lag in science, technology, engineering and math (the “STEM” areas), but the OECD report also shows we’re behind in basic literacy and problem-solving skills as well. Many of my small-business clients, frustrated with the caliber of applicants they see, could have told you this. Challenging jobs to fill don’t just include the well-known shortages in information technology occupations; they include truck drivers, mechanics, customer service, sales personnel and travel agents.

The kinds of skill shortages identified in the OECD report will be made worse by a couple of “good news” trends – a return of manufacturing to the U.S. and increasing signs Americans want to buy “made in America” products. While we’re not going to see the manufacturing levels we saw in the decades between World War II and 1990, cheaper energy here, lower labor costs and increasing problems with overseas manufacturing are encouraging many multinational companies to manufacture goods in the U.S.

Small-business owners can’t fix the problems in our educational system or fill skills gaps on their own, but you don’t have to be a big, publicly held company with lots of dollars to spend on training and development to take some creative actions to increase your own labor supply.

As demand has picked up for American textiles and apparel, a group of manufacturers in Minnesota have created a partnership with a nonprofit organization and a local technical college to create a six-month training program for industrial textile workers. The course prepares its graduates to begin three-week sewing rotations on the factory floors of the manufacturers in the coalition.

I’ve got two small-business clients in Maryland who are thinking strategically and taking creative steps to address their future workforce needs. Jay Ellenby, the CEO of Safe Harbors Travel Group, has developed a training program for people who want to become travel agents. His company makes a small profit on the program, but more importantly, he increases the supply of travel agents and has the ability to select the best for his own business after they’ve gained some experience.

Another example is a software services company I work with that is developing a career ladder manual. When finished, the manual will give every one of the company’s 45 employees the opportunity to plan the progressions of their careers, identify the additional training, education and experience they need to advance and take the steps necessary to progress. Not only will the career ladder manual help develop the supply of in-demand IT professionals, but it also should help with retention.

With some strategic thinking and creativity, small businesses in a wide range of sectors can help themselves solve the skills gap. With the lead times involved, and the gap getting bigger, it’s time to get started.

Eric Gundlach is the president of The Gundlach Group LLC and deals with strategic transitions. He can be reached at eric@thegundlachgroup.com.

About Eric Gundlach