What Employers Really Want? Workers They Don’t Have to Train – Interview

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From time to time here at Training Station, we are lucky enough to be able to interview key thoughts leaders in the world of Learning and Development. It’s really enlightening to hear their thoughts on a wide variety of issues related to workplace learning, and – judging from the feedback we have heard – is appreciated by our readers as well. I recently had the opportunity to interact with Peter Cappelli, who is the George W. Taylor professor of management at The Wharton School and Director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources.  He is also a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, MA, served as Senior Advisor to the Kingdom of Bahrain for Employment Policy from 2003-2005, and since 2007 is a Distinguished Scholar of the Ministry of Manpower for Singapore. Cappelli is an expert on performance management and is the author of several books, including his latest, The India Way (Harvard Business Review Press, 2010). A recent article written by Cappelli in the Washington Post caught my attention. In an analysis about the “skills gap” issue – that companies aren’t finding enough potential workers with the appropriate skills needed for specific jobs due to lack of vocational training in schools, Cappelli concludes that, based on several surveys and reports, that in reality the issue is that companies do not want to spend a lot on on-the-job training. Increasingly, companies are both underpaying young employees and not focusing enough on allowing them to build specific job-related skills, which leads to high turnover. “The real challenge we face is that if everyone is hiring for the ability to do a job, rather than for the potential to do it well, how does anyone get that initial experience,” Cappelli asks. “We need a different approach: one where  employers are not just consumers of skills, but are part of the system for producing them.” Cappelli was nice enough to expand on his thoughts in the interview below. Training Station: Please tell us a bit about the research you are conducting now Peter Cappelli: On this topic, we are working on a study showing the wage premium to various aspects of skill. Training Station: I read a New York Times op-ed by you from 2012 where you urged employers to ask themselves “Are you sure you cannot train anyone?”. Based on your research, why are companies so hesitant to put the time and money into properly training employees? Is training that expensive and hard to execute effectively? P. Cappelli: Some never did, but they hired from other employers who trained, and now those aren’t available; some got rid of their training programs, so now the start-up costs are big; mainly the people at the top just have this conclusion as a gut-level view.  In most cases, when we are talking about “training,” it’s just giving people some time to learn things themselves. Training Station: In your article, you recommend that employers look for candidates with the potential to do the job well, rather than limiting themselves to those with ability to do the job. How would you recommend that employers identify candidates with potential, (as potential is not an easily definable trait)? P. Cappelli: I wouldn’t say the goal is necessarily to hire raw talent but just to hire people who have close to the complete skill set.  Trying to anticipate potential is very hard. Training Station: You disagree with the common complaint that that prospective employees are “not conscientious enough, they don’t listen, they expect too much”. While this claim may be outdated, the  newest generation of college grads are accustomed to a more engaging, interactive learning approach. Do you think it is realistic to expect 20-somethings to sit through lengthy classroom style learning? Or is there a different approach that you recommend? Cappelli: There is no real evidence that graduating students today are any different than those who graduated ten years or so before.  .  .  They’ve sat through college and high school classes all day. Training Station: You conclude your article by stating that, “We need a different approach: one where employers are not just consumers of skills, but are part of the system for producing them”. What do you envision being involved in this approach? How do you recommend employers become producers of skills, in a timely, cost-effective manner? Cappelli: Apprenticeships are ideal, although   internships and just getting close to schools to work with them makes a lot of sense. Training Station: What is your take on training at the moment of need, within the context of your research finding? Cappelli: Seems to work really well because people are motivated to learn then as they can see the need Training Station: What training-related issues do you see as becoming prevalent in the future? Cappelli: At the moment there isn’t anything really novel about the challenges.  
Jason is the former Lead Author & Editor of TrainingStation Blog