These HR Leaders Are Going 'All In' to Bridge the Skills Gap

By Dori Meinert May 22, 2017
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​Five years ago, the high turnover of medical assistants was troubling Missy Sparks and her HR team at Ochsner Health System in New Orleans. Qualified candidates were hard to find, and many of them who joined the company didn’t have the right mix of competencies. They had the requisite technical abilities but lacked the soft skills that are so important for dealing with patients and medical staff.

“People were coming in and very quickly were not able to meet the demands of the job,” says Sparks, assistant vice president for talent management and workforce development. She and her team (pictured above) wondered if they could improve the situation by creating a specialized training program that would aid the community at the same time.

“Was there a better chance for us as a corporate citizen to really help make a difference in the city of New Orleans? Could we bring people who were unemployed or underemployed into a career pathway?” Sparks recalls the team members asking each other.


So they developed a pilot program in partnership with Delgado Community College and with the assistance of a grant and expertise from New Orleans Works, a program of the Greater New Orleans Foundation.

The pilot was such a success that Ochsner now has a dedicated workforce development team and is expanding specialized training programs to fill other high-demand positions.

“That is a big win for the organization because we end up with highly engaged employees on the front line because we’re investing in our people,” Sparks says.

As employers around the world grapple with the shortage of qualified workers and the much-debated skills gap, Sparks and her team are going “all in” to ensure that the employees at Ochsner are ready and able to address work-related challenges that come their way. She is one of many HR professionals dedicated to improving and retaining their organizations’ greatest asset—their people.

“All In” is the theme of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2017 Annual Conference & Exposition, which takes place June 18-21 in New Orleans. In an era of constant change, HR professionals are playing a critical role in helping their organizations adapt by upgrading employees’ skills to meet the needs of the 21st century workplace.

Invest in People

Employers worldwide are facing the most acute talent shortage since the Great Recession, according to the results of ManpowerGroup’s 2016-2017 Talent Shortage Survey, released last fall. Of the 42,000 employers surveyed globally, 40 percent reported having a hard time finding qualified people to fill critical positions, the highest level since 2007. 

With skills requirements changing rapidly, more than half of the employers chose to develop and train their own people, compared with just 20 percent that did so in 2015.

And of the 2,210 U.S. organizations responding to the survey, 46 percent reported having trouble filling jobs, up from 32 percent in 2015. Of those that reported difficulty, 48 percent chose to train their own workers last year, a significant increase from 12 percent in 2015.

Many employers that cut their training and development during the recession “are now giving back and investing in employees,” says Chris Layden, managing director of Experis, a division of ManpowerGroup.

That’s a good thing, since more than one-third of working adults say they need more education and training to get ahead in their job or career, according to the results of the State of American Jobs survey by the Pew Research Center and the Markle Foundation, released last fall.

Look Ahead

​HR Director Secret Holland wants to make sure that the employees at Gas South LLC are well-trained to do their jobs—even as the Atlanta-based company grows rapidly, bringing many new people on board.

Like Sparks, Holland and her HR team are focusing on front-line workers. “I think many people overlook the importance of that hourly front-line employee,” says Holland. “We’ll spend $25,000 to pay a headhunter fee to hire a top-level executive, but how much do we spend on customer care employees? They’re the ones who interact with our customers every day, all day.”

She launched an internal learning management system to improve competency-based training opportunities for all 230 of Gas South’s employees, but she’s focusing particularly on its 100 customer service employees. She also revamped the performance management system, adding individual professional development goals. (At the same time, the company raised its starting wage to $15 an hour, resulting in a pay increase for 25 percent of its workforce. And it provided staff with more flexible work options.)

By helping to boost the company’s reputation for excellent customer service, Holland and her team are enabling the business to stand out in a crowded field of gas providers. 

“HR has a responsibility to keep workforce readiness as an ongoing topic and not just a once-a-year head count discussion,” Holland says.

To ensure that their companies have the right people with the right skills, HR professionals must take on the roles of forecaster, investigator and project manager.

“We have to figure out what workforce we need to ensure that the company is ready for the future. To me, it always starts with your business goals,” Holland says. 

She suggests beginning with these key questions:

• Where do business leaders want the company to be in the next five, 10 or 15 years? 

• What kind of talent do you need to achieve that goal?

• What kind of talent do you have?

• What do you need to retrain existing talent?

• If that’s not possible, where can you find new talent?

“The HR role is particularly important because so often the business leaders focus on the next task, the next sale,” Holland says. “And, until they turn around and don’t have a resource they’re looking for, they may not stop to think about whether they have the right resources. So HR needs to be asking those questions.”

Build Relationships

​HR professionals are increasingly working with community colleges, workforce development boards and nonprofit organizations to give a leg up to young people and to people who are unemployed or underemployed.

“Building relationships with these organizations would be really worthwhile. They don’t want to see jobs go unfilled,” says Maureen Conway, vice president for policy programs at The Aspen Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C., who has led research efforts into workforce strategies to help low-income individuals.

But before contacting the organizations, make sure you know what you want to accomplish, Conway advises. Take a problem-solving approach. Why aren’t you attracting enough qualified applicants, and why aren’t the people you’ve hired staying in their jobs? Partnering with public agencies can help address some underlying reasons, such as transportation, but not those that fall outside the purview of your potential partner.

For example, “sometimes the reason it’s hard for them to fill jobs is the scheduling or pay,” says Andrea Vaghy Benyola, managing director of career and education services at The Door, which provides job training and other services to disadvantaged youth in New York City. “Our services aren’t going to remedy those things.” The Door has worked with Gap Inc. and other retailers to train young people for entry-level internships.

Find Partners

​HR professionals are also helping to ensure that more people are trained in critical roles by getting involved in regional partnerships, including those with other employers and education, workforce and economic development organizations. 

Leaders at Click Bond Inc. in Carson City, Nev., exemplify how some of those relationships can work. Larry Harvey, HR director at the company, which manufactures adhesive-bonded fasteners primarily for the aerospace industry, sits on the local workforce development board, while the company’s board chairman is a member of the community college board. Click Bond also is one of the first two employers developing an apprenticeship program through the Nevada Apprenticeship Project. 

“Everybody talks about the skills gap, and we are certainly experiencing that,” Harvey says. About 20 percent of the company’s 340 workers are expected to retire in the next 10 years. At the end of a four-year apprenticeship, an employee may still require another 10 years to learn all of the skills held by the person retiring, he says. Meanwhile, competition is heating up as several larger employers have moved into the area.

​Click Bond has had apprentice programs at its Connecticut facility for eight years. It also has a pre-apprenticeship program for high school students. Harvey is working with Truckee Meadows Community College to develop the curriculum for toolmakers and maintenance mechanics in Carson City. 

Ochsner Health System’s Sparks sits on a health care advisory council for the city of New Orleans along with the senior vice president of human resources of LCMC Health, another large health care provider in the state. Although the two executives work for competing organizations, they’re planning a collaborative program to train medical lab technicians beginning this fall. 

“Together, we can make a greater difference for our citizens than if we stand as competitors,” Sparks says.  

Pictured at the top of the article: The workforce development team at Ochsner Health System in New Orleans is creating job-specific training programs to ensure a steady flow of qualified workers for high-demand positions. From left, they are: Erin Kuster, Nadiyah Morris, Jason Russell, Missy Sparks, Kristyn Knowles Dadlez, Javier Pineda and Amanda Pharo. Photograph by Greg Miles for HR Magazine.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Using Government and Other Resources for Employment and Training Programs]

Missy Sparks

Assistant vice president for talent management and workforce development, Ochsner Health System

The Problem

Ochsner Health System’s 28 hospitals and 60 health clinics in Louisiana and Mississippi were experiencing high turnover of medical assistants. New hires lacked the soft skills required for dealing with patients and other medical staff. 

The Fix

Sparks and her team partnered with Delgado Community College to develop a program through which Ochsner would train its own medical assistants. They received planning grants through a New Orleans Works initiative and the Greater New Orleans Foundation. They were shocked when 504 people applied for the first 20 training slots.

“There are people who want and need to be given avenues to work. That has changed our DNA as a company,” Sparks says. “We recognize now that we save and change lives in more ways than just the patient room.”

Sparks and Nadiyah Morris, director of workforce development and talent management, helped hire the instructor and developed the curriculum, which covered soft skills as well as medical competencies. Students come to Ochsner’s medical facilities for on-the-job clinical training once a week during the 15-week program. They also “job shadow” medical professionals in various departments and take the medical assistant national certification exam, which helps build their self-confidence. Ochsner reserves training slots for entry-level workers already on staff as well. 

What’s Next

A positive response from managers has prompted the HR team to expand job-specific training to other high-demand, high-turnover positions. And Ochsner provides ongoing support for trainees once they are hired, helping them to connect with community services when challenges in their personal life threaten to derail their newfound careers.

Her Advice

Understand what the hiring managers need. Study what others are doing. Start with a pilot program. Be realistic about what you expect the return on your investment to be.


Mark Cohen

HR director, Stavis Seafoods

The Problem

About half of the family-owned company’s 65 warehouse workers are immigrants whose first language isn’t English, which posed a communications challenge. “We’ve always felt that if our employees were more fluent in English, they could do their jobs more effectively,” Cohen says. 

The Fix

Four hours a week, 18 warehouse workers step away from their jobs inspecting and packing seafood to study English. The classes are free and onsite—the result of a partnership that the Boston wholesaler has with the nonprofit Jewish Vocational Service. 

As workers become more fluent, they are able to contribute more to their jobs, sometimes in unexpected ways. For example, their supervisors learned that many Spanish-speaking employees came from fishing villages in their native countries and could offer advice on how to better pack the seafood. “They were familiar with fish, but we didn’t know that until we started the classes,” Cohen says. 

What Made It Work

Cohen’s first two attempts to provide English classes failed. The difference this time is that he partnered with someone who was willing to learn the business, he says. The nonprofit’s program manager toured the facility and studied the workers’ jobs. She suggested ways for managers to boost their employees’ confidence in using their new language skills. And she took the administrative burden off Cohen, hiring teachers and helping apply for a state grant.

Simple changes made a difference, too. They now refer to the program as “English training” instead of “English classes,” which helps both employees and managers think of language learning as work-related and mutually beneficial.

The employees are grateful and understand that they need English to advance.

“It has definitely boosted their enthusiasm and morale,” Cohen says. “We’re providing them with opportunities for growth and development, which we regard as one of the key elements of retention.”

His Advice 

Find a good partner who knows what a blue-collar workforce wants and needs and will work with you. Get the supervisors involved and enthusiastic about the program.


Andrea Shimer

HR director, Old Navy/Gap Inc.

The Problem

The retailer wanted to help low-income teens and young adults make a strong start in the working world. The company cites research indicating that failing to get a first job as a teen can significantly impact an individual’s long-term earning potential.

The Fix

In 2007, Gap rolled out a paid internship program called This Way Ahead, which has helped more than 2,500 young people land their first jobs. Participants are recruited by local nonprofits, such as The Door in New York City, which runs job-training programs. Those accepted into the program are hired for 10-week internships, working about 12 hours a week, and receive ongoing support and feedback from the nonprofits’ job coaches, store managers and colleagues. In 2016, more than 70 percent of participants received job offers at Old Navy, Banana Republic or Gap stores.

“It’s giving them the skills and confidence they need in the long term to be successful in the workplace,” says Shimer, who serves on a steering committee for the program. Gap has developed a toolkit to help other employers.

​What’s Next

Gap plans to hire 5 percent of its entry-level employees from the internship program by 2025. This Way Ahead is now in place at 172 stores in 12 cities, and the number is expected to double this year.

While the program started as a way to help the community’s youth, the company benefits as well. Former interns who are hired stay with the company twice as long as their peers and have higher engagement scores, Shimer says. 

The interns also inspire other staff members. At a recent corporate leadership conference, a former intern shared how the program gave him hope after he had dropped out of school. His goal is to be a general manager in five years. 

Her Advice

Don’t be afraid to start out small and build up. Encourage leaders of all levels to engage with the interns. Help them understand what the program gives to underserved youth and also what it gives back to leaders. It’s a two-way street.


Mike Panigel

Senior vice president of human resources and chief human resources officer, Siemens USA

The Problem

When Siemens Energy opened a gas turbine production plant in Charlotte, N.C., in 2011, it had difficulty finding enough highly skilled workers to fill the new positions. 

The Fix

The German engineering company, which employs more than 50,000 workers at 60 U.S. manufacturing sites, partnered with Central Piedmont Community College to create a unique apprenticeship program. It sent seven of the college’s instructors to Siemens’ technical academy in Germany to be trained and certified so that they can teach apprentices on equipment provided by Siemens.

The company recruits high-achieving high school seniors who after four years of on-the-job training end up with an associate degree in mechatronics, which is a blend of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer control and information technology. When they finish, the graduates have no loans to repay and a full-time, $50,000-a-year job. To date, 13 graduates have completed the program. At a White House meeting in March, Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser pledged to train 20 more apprentices in the U.S.

What Makes It Work

The unique “earn-as-you-learn” formula is a big draw, Panigel says.

The U.S. program is registered with the U.S. Department of Labor, giving it national recognition. It costs Siemens $170,000 per student, including $45,000 in wages and $12,000 in tuition. “It’s not cheap, but it’s an investment,” Panigel says.

Based on the success of the Charlotte program, Siemens has launched similar apprenticeships in Atlanta; Fort Payne, Ala.; Marion, Ky.; Sacramento, Calif.; and Winston-Salem, N.C.

While the programs help the company, “it’s also part of the social responsibility of the company to invest in and develop people,” Panigel says. In that vein, Siemens has developed a guidebook to help other organizations develop apprenticeship programs.

His Advice

Select the right community college that will provide the training your company needs. Make sure your leaders understand this is a long-term investment.


Dori Meinert is senior writer/editor for HR Magazine.

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