New tactics needed to develop a new workforce

Companies that invest in the right learning and development programs will better position themselves to accelerate skills development, improve organizational capability, and sustain business success

By Sam Ponzo April 25, 2013

Today’s workplace is a fast-changing, global, and highly competitive environment that requires organizations to swiftly recognize and address business challenges. While navigating these challenges is never easy, the current workforce scenario, both in the United States and abroad, adds another layer of complexity.

In terms of safety, operations, and sustainability, two challenges loom on the horizon. At one end of the spectrum, developed economies face an aging workforce. At the other end, emerging economies struggle with the issue of unskilled labor. What does this mean for businesses in these areas?

An aging workforce

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, baby boomers make up nearly half the workforce in the United States. Western Europe faces a similar challenge with the number of workers aged 35 to 44 expected to decline dramatically. Many of the oldest baby boomers have already retired or are very close to retirement.

A mass exodus of older workers means many industries are facing rapid workforce turnover to a whole new generation of workers. With nearly 70% of all learning occurring on the job, organizations have traditionally trained new workers through on-the-job training mechanisms facilitated by older, highly experienced workers. As baby boomers leave the workforce, however, their knowledge will go with them unless organizations have contingency plans in place to ensure knowledge transfer happens, and happens quickly. For example, on average it takes 10 years to fully train a journeyman electrician. This 10-year development cycle, combined with the rapid pace at which baby boomers are retiring, could mean there won’t be enough experienced journeyman electricians remaining in the workforce to transfer their knowledge to new workers. Many companies face the loss of institutional knowledge, creating gaps in safety, sustainability, and operations processes and negatively impacting the ability to operate safely and effectively.

Unskilled labor and contract workers

Emerging economies don’t face an aging workforce. Industries like mining and oil and gas exploration, which are booming, are facing a shortage of skilled workers. Labor is in high demand, and companies have two options: train the local workforce or bring in outside contract workers.

A good example is local workers in Africa or Indonesia, who often don’t possess a formal education past sixth grade. Many are herders or subsistence farmers who have no experience working in any type of industrial setting, and yet they are now working in a highly hazardous workplace, such as on an oil rig or in a mine.

Rather than utilizing unskilled local workers, organizations might try to manage a large contract workforce. This is often the option of choice in new exploration and mining in remote areas of Western Australia and Western Canada. In this scenario, companies fly in employees to work for two to three weeks at a time. These workers have the skills to do the job but lack the continuity of specific knowledge applicable to this project, as one group of workers transfers out and the next transfers in. 

Long-term learning and development

While these challenges represent two different scenarios, the solution for each is the same. Organizations must develop and maintain learning and development programs that help get workers up to speed quickly and provide them with the means to continue learning and to retain critical information. Establishing this function enables companies to ensure that employees have the right skills for the job they are performing. It also empowers employees to look at their career path from a long-term point of view. 

DuPont, with more than 200 years of operating experience in 23 different industry sectors, knows firsthand that the most effective way to get people to learn is to blend classroom study and learning with an ample amount of practical, on-the-job training. It is this focus on practical experience through on-the-job applications that enables a quicker and more thorough knowledge transfer.

It also is important to consider the training delivery mode, which varies based on what and whom you are trying to teach. Millennials do not learn in the same way baby boomers did. Organizations that achieve the best results employ variety of ways to connect and interact with employees.

The notion of using a variety of methods in learning and development is one DuPont has utilized internally. Several years ago, it was noted that some of our training activities involved employees sitting and watching PowerPoint slides. At the same time it was recognized that DuPont was not consistently achieving the desired performance improvement from our learning and development efforts.

To change our results, DuPont began to employ a standard instructional design approach in all of our internally developed programs and workshops. This approach is a scientifically derived methodology that incorporates the research and theories of cognitive and behavioral psychology. The basic concept of applying a systems approach to instructional development is that once proficiency can be defined in measurable terms, these skills can be taught and post-training proficiency can be measured in specific areas.

Employing this instructional design methodology has resulted in greater engagement among employees during training and an increase in the effectiveness of our sessions, as measured by job performance and employee satisfaction.

In order to address the learning styles and needs of all employees, companies must offer learning and development programs that are flexible and adaptable. The key is to incorporate comprehensive assessments upfront, particularly for organizations that deal with diverse, global workforces. The ability to understand and assess knowledge levels at the onboarding stage ensures that regardless of a worker’s skill set, that person is placed in the right spot on the learning and development continuum.

In today’s rapidly changing work environment, the need for skilled talent is greater than ever before. Companies that invest in the right learning and development programs will better position themselves to accelerate skills development, improve organizational capability, and sustain business success. 

Sam Ponzo is DuPont Sustainable Solutions Practice Leader of Learning and Development.