Want to roll back offshoring? Create jobs? Train our folks

By Eric Berridge

A few weeks ago I was quoted in The Wall Street Journal for expressing that President Obama's speech on jobs would have benefited from more specifics on the need to train people in the skill sets that are in huge demand in the economy right now. To elaborate on this, according to a recent McKinsey & Company report, the U.S. needs to create 21 million new jobs by 2020 to bring employment back to pre-recession levels. Downsizing and offshoring get most of the press when it comes to job loss, but an important and less-frequently discussed part of the equation is the fact that technology is outpacing the skills of today's worker, and in many cases sending jobs overseas.

How many jobs? In my IT staffing practice, on average about one third of the positions we staff go to H-1B visas not because of cost, but because there simply aren't enough qualified domestic applicants. The number is even higher for technologies like .Java, .Net, SQL, PHP, and MY SQL where the majority go to H-1B. As we seek to create jobs, shouldn't we be just as concerned about making sure our workforce is qualified to take jobs that are already there?

The other talent gap

However, the need for tech training goes beyond issues of offshoring IT. Social media has combined with cloud computing to ignite an unprecedented level of business innovation, but once again, technological advancements constantly outpace the knowledge and skills of today's worker. The result is a second talent gap that prevents organizations from reaching their full potential, and in doing so, stifles the kind of growth we need to create jobs. In this instance, the “gap” is not so much centered around lack of mastery of a specific technology as it is a lack of knowledge of how that technology applies to the very specific needs of each business.

As the line between IT and the rest of the business continues to blur, we're going to see an increased need for administrators and developers to not only stay up-to-date, but also learn how these innovations map to their company's specific processes and strategies. On the flip side of the coin, the need for IT training may very well go beyond IT -- management, marketing and sales professionals are going to need to be trained on these technologies as well.

Diverting budget for training

While training has certainly always been a mainstay of IT, the rapid pace of tech evolution, and the ways it is increasingly being molded into previously non-tech business functions, means that CIOs need to push for even more of an emphasis on training. This may be a tall order initially, but it will pay off for the organization in terms of productivity, effectiveness and innovation. This paradox is indicated by the aforementioned McKinsey study which noted that while the size of the workforce has decreased steadily since 2008, companies are actually more productive. Technology undoubtedly plays a role in this increasing level of productivity.

Focus training on new, flexible technology

While it is true that an awful lot of H-1B visas are going to more traditional back-end technologies, you'll probably see the most ROI from your investment in training for the newer, flexible technologies, because those are the ones that are more directly tied to the latest innovative business processes. In particular, investing in training for technologies that facilitate collaboration are likely to pay off.

Leverage flexible learning techniques

In implementing a training initiative, it's extremely important to be flexible, as the increasingly dynamic business and tech environment we work in means that targets and priorities are constantly shifting. We're fortunate because e-learning makes it possible to deliver learning content in real time by using short, digestible modular learning processes, making it much more feasible to train people without having to divert them away from their work. The informal delivery that e-learning affords also works well within today's erratic business cycles as curriculum can be quickly altered to address the most immediate needs.

As technology increasingly drives business, ongoing training is going to be a much more important component of each individual's ability to get a job, every company's competitiveness, and our overall economic well-being. While universities and government may play a role in making sure our workforce has the skills it needs to compete beyond 2011, both businesses and individuals will be wise to take initiative and ensure they're on top of the latest technologies -- if they don't, they can rest assured that a competitor, somewhere in the world, will.

Eric Berridge is co-founder and principal of agile business consulting firm Bluewolf, which provides lifecycle innovation, cloud implementations, IT staffing, managed services and other services to sync business and IT for efficient, adaptive performance. He also co-authored the book "Iterate or Die" along with Bluewolf co-founder Michael Kirven.

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