If articles came with street signs, this one might say "Wide Open," but after reading this, I believe you'll see why it was time for this columnist to take a break from the standard problem/solution format.
All of the good people who contribute regularly to this publication have a relationship with their readers. The roles we each play are well-defined. For the good of that writer/reader relationship, it's important to keep things fresh and to be aware of how perception and stereotyping can put contributors in boxes that have very little give.
My role might make it seem that there is a step-by-step solution for nearly every business problem. If I'm not careful, I might even come off as a person who fully believes he possesses all of those solutions. We've all had the displeasure of meeting the swaggering, arrogant answer-man or answer-woman, and each of us has probably imagined their sudden appearance on the back panel of the morning's milk carton. Not being the particularly photogenic type or wanting my journalistic contribution to the English language reduced to "Have you seen me?", I'd like to discuss some issues that don't have step-by-step solutions.
As a business enthusiast and essayist, it's often my job to aim high when I'm weighing in on business and inspire others to join in — all the while demonstrating that the spectacular view is worth the climb. The stratospheric trip to the top of the business world is rewarding for many reasons. Among them, it's less crowded at that altitude and there's new opportunity, enhanced profit and a greater return on your investment to be found at those heights. If I'm giving direction to a business audience, it's critical that what I describe is rooted in reality. If the business landscape I paint begins to look like it could be titled "The Soft And Fuzzy Love Bunnies Travel To Chocolate Sprinkle Land," then it's clear that our mutual reference points are beginning to disengage and my credibility is rapidly destroying itself. Said another way, my value to you can be largely measured by my "real ability" — i.e., my ability to stay real and/or my capacity to travel the identical rocky roads as you (the real path you encounter each day in business) head for that corporate promised land and turn down invitations to hobnob with the famously out-of-touch residents of the Ivory Tower.
The truth is that I love business — its ideals, constructive benefit and potential. I think businesses can accomplish almost anything when the leadership, plan and talent achieve that magical alignment we see from time to time. But I also believe that success requires extremely hard work that takes courage and persistence, and even a little faith and good luck, to reach whatever your dream of the top might be. To stay real, there's always a need to point out the blemishes, screw-ups and cursed obstacles that show up — often at the worst possible times. This is one of those times.
The Fall Begins
October approaches hungrily, like the forgotten table called up last to a depleted buffet. Jerry Lewis has finished his 183rd annual telethon extravaganza — or so it seems. The kids are dreading, but still heading, back to school. Your backyard grill, quieter now, still wears the hard yellow remnants of cheeseburgers past and yet you'd swear you saw a huge plastic pumpkin being inflated on the roof of the local garden center. Halloween? Already? In today's environment, when retail speaks, all business owners better listen (regardless of your own place in the great supply chain). To help you become an even savvier newshound, try this small but effective linguistic switch: Whenever you hear or read the word "retail" in a news report, I would urge you to translate it to "consumer." As in "consumers" buy lots of countertops.
If this economy of ours does come down with a cold, as some now soothsay, retail will be among the first to start sniffling.
Fall is the time of year when business plans get pushed to the side and companies start running their numbers to forecast the performance of 2007. We do that in hopes of finding a local sign that will comfort us and show that our own little hamlet won't be economically punished for the sins of other hamlets (both big and small) run by the ham-handed, ham-headed Procurers of Pork who often direct the action from an unapologetic platform of self-interest.
Hibernation Can Be Hazardous To Your Health
Red flags abound but are we to blame? If I may momentarily speak for the surfacing industry, I would respond thusly; we weren't the greedy, conflicted ones selling those monstrous mortgages to anyone with a job and "McMansion Fever." We certainly didn't pull the rug out from under the housing market and create record drops in pending home sales. Hell, we're the ones who add real value to American homes. (Remember, home values are like the temperature. When values drop, consumers tend to freeze.)
We aren't traveling door-to-door — telling our fellow Americans depressing, wallet-sealing economic tales that recently pushed consumer sentiment down to its lowest levels in years. No industry is more patriotic, so allow us the barely audible sigh that might have accompanied the latest round of mammoth checks funding the termless war efforts, which the Congressional Budget Office now says costs us all more than $200 million every 24 hours. We're not the ones wildly jumping in and out of the stock market. Whatever "investable" money we do have is, in all likelihood, helping to support our own beloved businesses. The individuals and groups that are causing this unprecedented market turbulence are also partly responsible for depressing the stock price of our nation's biggest home builders like Toll Brothers, Centex and Hovnanian.
We are not the ones causing the new fears for consumers down on Main Street. At the moment, there aren't neatly packaged answers for these national challenges. Earlier, we said that one of the critical ingredients of a good business writer, consultant or expert partner was candor and credibility — knowing when to demonstrate that some problems don't have direct solutions. Some of the challenges herein have no attainable "fix" to them. While our culpability in these challenges may be slight, our responsibility to shake them off has never fallen more squarely on our shoulders as citizens. The best action is to stay alert to these concerns, monitor multiple sources of news (not just the sites, channels or people that please you politically or emotionally), go beyond the headlines and find ways to become more than a watcher. (Hint: Powerful problems are best fought by powerful groups — it's never been easier to find like-minded individuals who care enough to join the battle.)
Turning our attention away from what could be a bear at the door, let's attend to a new finding that tells us things we don't want to hear about the next wave of workplace entrants we'll be hiring to support and grow our businesses. Is there a new systemic problem calling for us all to become partners in the solution?
Are They Ready To Perform?
As this article was being prepared, a new study commissioned by The Society for Human Resource Management, The Conference Board and other leading research and business advocacy groups, had its results made public. The study's purpose was to gain a better understanding of the readiness of new entrants to the American workforce. To be blunt, this is not some egghead, data exercise prepared and released to excite other eggheads — this one counts. If you read on and consider the problem, you will note two things. First, this issue will negatively impact our long-term ability to compete in the global marketplace and, secondly, the solution to this problem will require everybody's best efforts.
The study's results comment intelligently on the competitive future of your business, your industry and this country. As we've seen our economy continue to evolve into one that is far more talent-dependent than resource-dependent, it's quite fair to declare that its ability to compete on the world stage is entirely dependent on America's ability to produce a highly skilled workforce. This study takes a significant step in that direction but, unfortunately, the findings are exceptionally troubling.
Based on previous surveys, anecdotal evidence and intuition, it was anticipated that a skills gap of some kind might be found when examining the next wave of workers. Step No. 1 was to define the skills gap by surveying over 400 employers as to the skills necessary to succeed in the workplace for high school graduates, two-year technical school graduates and four-year college graduates. Employers were asked to define the current state of these employees' workforce readiness and to assess their current level of proficiency in the areas most critical to succeed in the 21st century economy.
The employers reported that new entrants to the workforce exhibited deficiencies with the most basic skills — reading, writing and math — but were also lacking in applied skills. This stable of applied skills, vital to today's workplace, includes professionalism, teamwork, oral communication, reading comprehension and ethics/social responsibility. By now, you've seen enough of the findings that have been presented in this Business Essentials column to recognize just how critical these attributes are to building a present day organizational workhorse. Drilling down into the data, we find that only 23.9 percent of new entrants with four-year college degrees have excellent basic knowledge and applied skills. Of course, deficiencies are greatest with entrants having just high school degrees. To underscore the staggering level of deficiency the study found, just 0.02 percent of the 431 responding employers described workforce entrants with high school diplomas to be "excellently prepared" in both basic and applied skills. While preparedness does increase with each educational level achieved, important deficiencies exist among workplace entrants at every level. The most notable basic skill collapse was judged to be written communications with a deficiency percentage of 80.9 percent for high schoolers, 47.3 percent for two-year college grads and 27.8 percent (still!) for new workforce entrants with a four-year college diploma hanging on their wall. If you've seen more applicants or new workers lately with "issues" when it comes to their work ethic or professionalism, don't feel too alone – these two applied skills are actually applied very infrequently according to our study group. The study concludes with a dejected summation; "The future workforce is here, and it is ill-prepared." Where has the system gone wrong?
Turn Your Lemons Into Lemonade
Have you seen these deficiencies in your workplace? Have recent job applicants lacked readiness? If so, have you found a way to rise above the problem? Of course you had no real part in the creation of this challenge, but finger-pointing helps no one. There are no well-defined answers to guide us and so we are left to fight the problem with our common sense and, hopefully, a cooperative spirit that might lend itself to a grass-roots response. The fact is, your business and this industry need a steady stream of qualified and resourceful workers. Either way, this next generation of workers will sink or swim.
It's time to partner up with schools, after-school programs and university and community-based youth development programs. Be the first to offer internships, scholarships, mentors, summer jobs, work-study programs... anything to provide a practical learning experience for students to cultivate both the basic and the applied skills you need them to have. There's no pride to be found clearing the pool of abandoned sinkers. Wouldn't you rather cheer on the swimmers you worked so hard to train?
About the author:
Chris Traynor, SPHR, is the Director for Whip-Smart Management Consulting, Wayne, N.J., and has 25 years of experience in the solid surface industry as a consultant to fabricators, distributors and manufacturers. He can be reached at email@example.com.