Overcoming Skills Gaps Takes Senior Management Support

By Stephenie Overman Apr 17, 2008

What is the biggest obstacle to overcoming workforce skills gaps? According to Christopher DeVany, president and founder of Pinnacle Performance Improvement Worldwide, it’s lack of support from senior management.

DeVany presented a workforce assessment seminar March 26, 2008, as part of a week-long program on human capital management at The Performance Institute in Arlington, Va. The Performance Institute, a private, nonpartisan think tank, works to help government agencies improve results.

What often happens with workforce assessment, DeVany said, is that “you’ve been given this assignment [by senior management] and told “just get this done. Don’t bother me.”

DeVany and the seminar participants, mainly from government agencies, discussed ways to persuade senior management of the urgency of identifying and analyzing skills gaps and of developing an action plan to close those gaps. He recommended showing senior leaders how overcoming certain skills gaps will meet specific needs that are related to the agency’s mission.

Government HR managers also have the support of the Chief Human Capital Officer’s Act of 2002, DeVany noted. The act requires agencies to:

  • Identify and describe integral occupations directly tied to the performance and fulfillment of the mission and strategic objectives.
  • Define competencies that support the workforce in meeting the mission and strategic objectives.
  • Describe the state of the workforce using talent analysis to report on key demographics.
  • Project the number and types of positions, as well as the nature of the workforce, necessary to achieve the mission, strategy and program performance goals.
  • Identify potential shortfalls in workforce capabilities, and develop and implement a full range of solutions to mitigate or close existing as well as expected gaps.

Check Supply, Demand—Then Act To Fill Gaps

To develop a plan of action, start by assessing the current workforce, DeVany said, to determine the difference between the resources available (supply) and the resources needed (demand) to meet the agency’s mission. Doing this helps the agency set priorities so it can focus on areas of greatest need.

Supply analysis identifies current organization skills or competencies and analyzes staff and employment trends. This helps agencies evaluate their resources, identify needs and project their workforce strategy, according to DeVany.

Demand analysis deals with the development of measures for future workloads and activities. DeVany suggested that agencies use modeling, forecasting and other statistical techniques to estimate their staffing needs quantitatively.

Gap analysis is the process of comparing information from the agency’s supply and demand analyses to determine the shortages in competencies needed for the agency’s future workforce.

DeVany called on the participants to develop a plan of action, or “a living, breathing plan that is constantly updated,” once needs are identified.

The key words in planning, he said, are “build,” “acquire,” “optimize” and “share.”

1. Build functional, technical and core competence in the workplace.

  • Document career profiles and paths for jobs, and share with the workforce the competency requirements and associated development activities.
  • Create formal programs and standards for developing existing and emerging leaders, managers and supervisors.
  • Create apprenticeship, mentoring and coaching programs that appeal to multi-generational, multicultural learning styles.
  • Develop phased orientation to help new employees transition into the workplace.
  • Create structured transitions for separations, when possible. Attempt to have an overlap of incumbents to allow knowledge transfer.

2. Acquire and secure resources, while striving for diversity.

  • Explore alternatives to traditional employment and sourcing relationships to address urgent and emergent mission needs and specialized skills.
  • Use flexible employment arrangements to broaden the candidate pool.
  • Expand the use of incentives to increase offer acceptance, to retain employees already on board and to delay retirements.
  • Develop performance recognition and workforce retention strategies, incorporating factors that influence employee commitment directly.
  • Share data on diversity representation to build awareness and drive change, and to hold leaders accountable for increasing outreach and for results.

3. Optimize infrastructure to support workforce effectiveness and efficiency.

  • Restructure, where possible, to aggregate similar activities, distribute workload better and promote consistency of skill levels in comparable positions. For example, DeVany said, “one agency had seven trade craft occupations and was able to boil them down to four.”
  • Standardize and streamline business processes to optimize staffing levels needed to support the workload, particularly in areas where resources are constrained.

4. Share knowledge, to inform and to ensure continuity.

  • Develop continuity and succession plans to capture institutional knowledge and address expected losses to retirement.
  • Prepare competency and experience profiles of staff with “hot skills.”
  • Establish knowledge communities and networks for critical work areas.
  • Create an “alumni directory” for existing and emerging mission critical competencies.
  • Build role profiles to define work roles further, including major areas of responsibility, organization interactions, systems and tools used.
  • Build information portals to share policies, procedures, job aids, lessons learned, common questions, information links and points of contact.

A plan of action can succeed only if “everyone understands the purpose for doing it” and “it is viewed as meaningful yet manageable,” DeVany said. And, of course, if “it is accepted and supported by the leadership in the workforce.”

Stephenie Overman is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va., and editor of Staffing Management magazine.


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