HR Is Helping to Narrow the Workforce Skills Gap

The profession leads the way in implementing effective recruitment, retention, retraining practices

By Betty Lonis, SHRM-SCP November 2, 2017
HR Is Helping to Narrow the Workforce Skills Gap

​The workforce skills gap that U.S. businesses have been experiencing over the last several years has been outlined in numerous studies and publications. A June report from The Business Roundtable, Work in Progress: How CEOs Are Helping Close America's Skills Gap, cites three types of skills gaps: 

  • A lack of individuals with fundamental employability skills, such as the ability to use basic math, communicate effectively, read technical manuals, work successfully in teams and participate in complex problem-solving.
  • A lack of workers who have specialized skills needed to fill many trade positions.
  • A lack of applicants with the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills needed for many of today's jobs.

These gaps have a significant impact on all of us in human resources, affecting many areas: the pool of qualified applicants we can provide to hiring managers, the amount of development we need to do internally to ensure that our employees are qualified to do their jobs, the pipeline of available talent for certain roles and potential successors, our ability to retain talent and the amount we have to pay to attract top talent. Thankfully, SHRM-certified HR professionals, who have demonstrated proficiency in the Business Acumen competency, are able to apply an understanding of the labor market when developing a strategy to manage and compete for talent.

The biggest impact has been on the pool of qualified applicants available in the market. The skills shortage has required talent acquisition specialists in organizations to get creative. 

One solution has been to start the search for talent earlier in the targets' careers. More companies are using internships to provide college students with opportunities to gain experience, making job offers at the end of summer internships in order to lock them in once they graduate. Other organizations are offering internship assignments and mentoring opportunities to high school students. Again, their goal is to help students learn about the workplace and about particular fields, and to provide them with work experience.

Companies are also onboarding talent where the talent is (versus where the company is located). This approach allows organizations to tap into larger talent pools than are available in their local markets. For positions subject to limited supply and high demand, though, it is still difficult to find talent, even when an organization is unconstrained by location.

Further, employers are broadening their talent pool by working directly with military veterans and with organizations that assist veterans in transitioning to the private sector. This is a great resource to find talent for specialized roles; however, a good understanding of how a veteran's military service and training translates to the role in the organization is essential—the relationship is often unclear. This lack of clarity requires an organization to take a deeper look into how a veteran's experience might translate to the organization's needs, and to not rely solely on automated applicant tracking systems. In some cases, the organization may be required to provide additional training to veterans to prepare them for their new role in the private sector. SHRM-CPs and SHRM-SCPs are able to build and maintain a workforce that meets the needs of the organization, being well-versed in the functional area of Talent Acquisition (part of the HR Expertise technical competency).

Another method that organizations are using to attract talent is to increase their workplace flexibility options, drawing in skilled candidates who may not want to work full time or who want to make their own schedules. Flexibility gives companies access to a broader, nontraditional applicant pool, including mothers returning to the workforce and older workers looking to step down from full-time opportunities while staying engaged.

Additionally, organizations are beginning to leverage creative incentives and benefits to attract and retain talent and increase recruitment effectiveness. Student loan debt repayment, paid leave for new parents, free meals, unlimited vacation time, paid time off to volunteer in the community, enhanced 401(k) programs and onsite medical clinics are just a few examples. Total Rewards is another functional area of HR Expertise that SHRM certificants have mastered. They are able to design and oversee such creative strategies in alignment with their organizations' strategic direction and talent needs. 

Yet another approach to the low supply of talent that some organizations are utilizing is to build their own talent. Employees with a basic level of skills are developed into employees with more specialized skill sets specific to the organization's needs. Apprenticeship-type programs in some companies combine internal or external training programs with on-the-job experience. Other companies partner with local community colleges to create courses customized for employees to ensure that they meet specific organizational skills requirements. SHRM-certified HR professionals who use best practices to develop and deliver the right learning and development activities for their organizations, closing gaps in employees' competencies and skills, are applying their own skills in the Learning & Development area of HR Expertise

Even with all of these creative ways to broaden the talent pipeline, it is still extremely difficult for organizations to find talent. Typically, a mix of approaches is best. Thus, the need for HR professionals with the ability to attract top talent will continue to increase as companies become more knowledge-based and require increasingly specialized skills. We must ensure that we are preparing ourselves and our organizations to rise to the challenges of this competitive new talent landscape. 

What is your organization doing to address the workplace skills gap? Send your stories to certification communication specialist Sharee Posey at,  and we will include your responses in the next issue.

Betty Lonis, SHRM-SCP, is senior HR leader, Financial Solutions, with Cox Automotive Inc./NextGear Capital in Carmel, Ind. She is a member of the SHRM Certification Commission and past director of the Indiana State Council of SHRM. 



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