3 Ways HR Can Help Close the Skills Gap


LAS VEGAS—HR professionals need to share their thoughts with government leaders to help shape policies that elevate HR and improve workplaces.

"When you raise your voice, you create better workplaces," said Emily M. Dickens, J.D., corporate secretary and chief of staff for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). "Our profession has the unique ability to speak on behalf of employers and employees. That's what's so important about what we do. Our voice is powerful."

Dickens was speaking during a mega session June 23 at the SHRM 2019 Annual Conference & Exposition. She moderated a panel discussion with federal agency leaders on how HR professionals can make a meaningful impact on critical issues in the world of work.

Conference attendee Angelia Washington, SHRM-SCP, said she was interested in understanding how SHRM and HR professionals are helping to shape policies. She works for Elkhart Housing Authority in Indiana and is earning a master's degree in social work.

One critical issue on HR's radar is how to close the skills gap. Eighty-three percent of HR professionals who responded to a 2018 SHRM survey said they had difficulty recruiting suitable job candidates in the prior year. Seventy-five percent of respondents said there's a skills shortage among candidates and 52 percent felt that the skills gap had worsened in the last two years.

So what can HR professionals and government leaders do to help close the skills gap? Here are three ideas panelists shared.

1. Support Multiple Training Pathways

HR specialists need to be part of the conversation to help prepare people for career paths and eliminate the gap, said Scott Stump, assistant secretary for career, technical and adult education at the U.S. Department of Education.

There's a fundamental discontent between education and economy, Stump noted. For several decades, high-school graduates and job seekers have been pushed toward earning a four-year degree, he said. "But we've neglected multiple pathways."

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) is exploring ways to get people off the sidelines of the labor force and involved in the mainstream, said Jonathan Berry, the DOL's acting assistant secretary for policy. The government needs to develop programs that ensure people are provided paths to sustainable careers and are getting the training and education they need to participate fully in the workforce, he said, noting that those programs can involve apprenticeships, on-the-job training or a traditional college education.

Berry supports industry-led apprenticeship programs that put that responsibility on industry experts to develop the programs. The federal government can be in the background making sure programs meet certain standards. The White House regulatory office recently concluded its review of a draft for the apprenticeship program, he said, "so stay tuned."

2. Hire Older Workers

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) focuses on eliminating employment discrimination, but the agency also wants to ensure that more people get recruited into the workplace, said Victoria Lipnic, an EEOC commissioner. The economy is much better now than it was during the Great Recession of the late 2000s, but many older workers are still on the sidelines, she said, noting that she prefers the term "experienced" workers to "older" workers.

Forty-nine percent of respondents to a 2019 survey by NORC at the University of Chicago who experienced age-related discrimination said it happened during the job application process.

Despite the booming economy, workers ages 50 and older experience longer terms of unemployment after a layoff than their younger colleagues, Lipnic noted.  

"People live longer and need to work longer," she said. So HR professionals should think about how they are recruiting and how to reach a more diverse pool of candidates. "Everyone has to broaden their approach," she added.

3. Hire Formerly Incarcerated Workers

The EEOC's most recent guidance on using criminal background information to make employment decisions was released in 2012. The guidance recognizes that relying on arrest and conviction records may have a disparate impact on applicants based on race and national origin. Among other requirements, employers were instructed to conduct an "individualized assessment" allowing candidates to provide evidence that a conviction is not related to their ability to perform a job.

The guidance was pretty controversial when it was released, but attitudes have shifted since 2012, Lipnic said.

Eighty-two percent of managers surveyed by NORC and 67 percent of HR professionals surveyed by SHRM in 2018 felt that the quality of hire for workers with criminal records was as high as or higher than that for workers without records.

SHRM encourages employers to give opportunities to qualified job applicants with criminal backgrounds and has partnered with Koch Industries to launch the Getting Talent Back to Work initiative.

"The employment of people with criminal records is an issue workplaces should be talking about," said Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, SHRM's president and chief executive officer, in a statement. "I encourage HR professionals to lead conversations about inclusive hiring at their organizations so other executives can make informed, sensible and beneficial hiring decisions."

[Visit SHRM's resource page on workforce readiness.]



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