The Most Serious Skill Gap Of All


Liz Ryan

August 22, 2016

It is common these days to hear people talking about Skill Gaps. A Skill Gap is a gap between what employers want or need their employees to be able to do, and what those employees can actually do when they walk into work.

One manager might say “My employees are fantastic people but I don’t have one single person who understands high-level customer service.”

Another supervisor could say “I need people with Ruby on Rails experience and I can’t find them, and it’s killing my product launch schedule!” Almost every organization struggles with skill gaps, or tells themselves they do.

Here’s the problem. Skills Gaps are imaginary. Just because a hiring manager says that they want a person who can fly and sing Italian opera while they’re writing code does not mean that such people exist, and certainly not for the designated salary. Strong leaders operate in the real world.

They make adjustments constantly, in order to stay in close contact with reality. Any company that complains about Skills Gaps has lost that connection.

If I go to TJ Maxx hoping to pick up a diamond brooch for $29.95, the absence of that brooch in the store is not a failing on the merchant’s part. It’s delusion on my part. We don’t allow our Procurement folks to spec imaginary parts for the products we build. We can’t say a word about”Skill Gaps” with a straight face, because it is our responsibility to hire from the actual talent pool, not an imaginary one. If we are not tuned into reality, it’s nobody’s fault but ours.

We can’t blame Mother Nature or the school system or anybody else for any skill gaps we might feel like whining about. We built a business. We run our business and we are responsible for every aspect of it. Would we get all huffy if a certain grain that we envisioned anchoring our new breakfast cereal bar is simply not grown on planet earth, and never has been?

We would say “That’s life. The grain we envisioned doesn’t exist. Let’s go to Plan B.” Yet when it comes to the skill sets that human job applicants and employees bring us, we complain about their insufficiency and we look around for someone to blame.

“Why don’t the schools give kids more STEM education?” we squeal, but as corporate citizens of towns, counties and states we are responsible for seeing that our schools teach kids what we believe kids need to know, or starting our own schools.  We can’t complain that our schools send us the wrong raw materials in the form of new hires. That is not leadership. Real leaders take responsibility for every input and output in their organizations —  maybe excepting the weather and geopolitics.

Faster is better in our business worldview. Fast means training people if the schools around us don’t supply new hires perfectly equipped to our specifications. We can whine about Skills Gaps or we can act. We can complain about problems with our employees or we can empower them to work the way independent contractors work, self-directed and eyes open.

Here is the biggest and most dangerous Skills Gap of all: it’s the gap between our employees’ limited or nonexistent awareness of themselves as economic units, and the reality of the world we are living in now.

If you want to teach your employees something with long-term value to them, you and your shareholders, teach them how to run their careers like businesses. Teach them how to drive their own careers.

Every working person can and should adopt an entrepreneurial mindset now, because it is the absence of that mindset and that awareness of their surroundings that keeps working people discouraged and underemployed.

It’s that disconnection from the real world and the talent marketplace that makes working people and less effective at work and less able to bounce back when a job goes away. Our employees don’t have visibility into the future of your organization or visibility into their own futures. That’s not healthy for anyone!

Who can sleep easily on their pillow when they don’t know whether or where they will be employed this time next year? Most of us learned from an out-of-date playbook. We used to get a job, do what we were asked to at work and then keep the job for five to ten years, or more. Those days are gone!

Now everything is different. Now we are all entrepreneurs, whether we work for ourselves or for someone else.

We have to equip ourselves for the new-millennium economic environment. Most working people don’t know how to brand themselves or how to set a career direction. These are critical life skills,  like driving or paying bills. Where will we learn them if we don’t learn them at work?

When you are told as an employee that internal yardsticks are everything and that you don’t need to think about yourself as a CEO of your own company, because you have a job and you’ll be told what to do on the job, we hurt our employees and ourselves. We put blinders on our teammates when we should be teaching them to look beyond their cubicle walls.

We disrupt our own organization’s functioning, too, because the decisions that get made when you are clinging to your job are very different from the decisions that get made when you aren’t. We say that we want our employees to think like business owners, but every HR policy and management practice encourages the opposite.

Our policies and practices encourage people not to think like business owners, but to do whatever a policy tells them to do. How can that kind of thinking lead to innovation, collaboration or breakthrough ideas?

Teaching people how to manage their own careers builds trust between you and them, and builds each employee’s confidence in him- or herself.

Teaching folks to run their own careers is matter of stepping back and saying to your teammates “I am running this company the best way I know how, but I have no idea what’s going to happen in the future. I can’t guarantee that you’re going to be working here one year from now. I don’t know if I’m going to be here one year from now, although I hope to be. You know our business plan.

“In any environment there is uncertainty, and we have it here, too. We have to acknowledge that and prepare, every one of us, to do whatever we do professionally in this setting and in many other settings. We have to be ready to find new work if something changes here.

“We have to understand more about the business world than most of us do. We all need to learn how to operate as free-standing businesses,  because that’s what we are. Your career is your business.”

This is the real Skills Gap. It’s vital training now, because having a job is not in any way equivalent to running your career.

We need to teach our employees how to be entrepreneurs. When we trust ourselves enough to talk about sticky topics like “If your job went away, what would you do?” with our workmates, then we can truly say that we are leaders.

We can and must teach STEM skills and lots of other things to our teammates, but let’s start with the basics. Every employee is an entrepreneur now, including you, and it’s time we addressed the need for working people to run their own careers. Everyone who steps into his or her power as a self-made CEO and every organization who supports that effort will be stronger, nimbler and faster for having done it.


This article was written by Liz Ryan from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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