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Scaling Up Skills

Employers adopt a multipronged approach to drive workforce development.


The Hershey Company has been feeling the pinch over the last several years trying to fill maintenance and manufacturing roles at its plant in Stuarts Draft, Va. Manufacturing—and the perception of it as a viable career option—has changed a lot since the plant was first built in 1982 to produce Reese’s Pieces.

“Manufacturing is so important to the country, but it’s not always people’s first career choice,” says Kevin Walling, Hershey’s senior vice president and chief human resources officer. “But the quality of work in manufacturing, the benefits and the pay are exceptional. So we decided to partner with the Shenandoah Valley Workforce Development Board in 2018, which works with local high schools to encourage young people to seek careers in manufacturing and develop a future workforce.”

The facility offers a two-week, paid boot camp to attract high school seniors, individuals from the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center, and other people in the local community who have no manufacturing experience and want to see what working in a manufacturing environment is like. Thirty-six people applied for the boot camp in the summer of 2018—15 of them were accepted. Graduates are considered for full-time jobs.

“Hershey is an iconic company, which serves as a talent magnet, but we do have our challenges,” Walling says. “Our plants are so technical. Maintenance roles have become electrician work, and electricians have become skilled programmers to operate advanced machinery.”

Hershey’s story is not unique; too many job applicants and workers across industrial sectors lack the skills needed for critical jobs. To close this gap, employers need to change how they think about work and the skills needed to do it.

The nation’s low unemployment and birth rates, roaring economy and poorly performing K-12 education create “the perfect storm for a skills gap,” says Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, president and chief executive officer of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). He sees effective training and development as the solution. “The people are there; they just don’t have the skills needed for the 21st century.”    

Employers must shift their focus from reactive hiring to thinking of themselves as builders of talent, says Jonas Prising, chairman and CEO of global staffing and talent acquisition firm ManpowerGroup, based in Milwaukee. “With new assessments, big data and predictive performance, we have the best tools to identify adjacent skills, help people shift into emerging roles and create clear career paths,” he says. “For individuals, the appetite for learning and continuous upskilling will [create] the route to better employment security. For organizations, creating a culture of [learning] so that people are equipped and open to adapt—to move within the company or elsewhere—must be a strategic priority.”

Time for Change

The U.S. economy experienced solid growth in 2018, along with record-low unemployment, increased productivity and improved consumer confidence. Strong employment gains and a high demand for talent have stretched an already tightened supply.

HR is leading the search for the small number of qualified candidates by increasing pay to attract talent, refocusing on retention and succession planning, and heightening the urgency around employee development.

To help businesses succeed, HR must adopt a holistic approach to creating the workplace of the future, Walling says. That involves taking “a longer-term view, anticipating need and then using data to drive decision-making in where the company invests in buy versus build,” he explains.

Recruit Differently

At Hershey, the talent pipeline is primed before there are staffing vacancies. “We’ll start developing a relationship with top candidates a year in advance of an anticipated opening, so when the vacancy occurs, we know who we want, they know us, and we are able to fill the role within a week or so of the need.”

Many organizations actively recruit from overlooked talent pools such as the formerly incarcerated, people with disabilities, workers returning from career breaks and older workers.

“We don’t have the luxury of leaving out significant portions of our population,” Taylor says. A 2018 survey from SHRM and the Charles Koch Institute found that many companies have not strongly considered candidates with a criminal record as a talent source—but are willing to do so. When asked why job offers were extended to individuals with criminal records, the majority of HR professionals responding to the survey said that they wanted to hire the most qualified candidate irrespective of criminal record. 

The Top 10 In-Demand Occupations Worldwide

Technology is redefining rather than replacing in-demand roles. Jobs in the skilled trades, as well as sales representatives, engineers, drivers and technicians have ranked among the hardest roles to fill for the past 10 years.

Source: ManpowerGroup, 2018.

Hershey developed a program called Abilities First for workers in manufacturing who have disabilities. It emphasizes equal pay, equal work and equal expectations. One of the company’s greatest successes has been converting many production lines to accommodate deaf workers. Supervisors and managers have been trained in sign language, and machines that were outfitted with bells and buzzers were adapted to use colored lights instead.

General Motors runs a career re-entry program called Take 2. The prime beneficiaries of the 12-week paid program are women and older workers who interrupted their careers to raise children, care for a sick family member or follow a spouse to a new job.

Focus on Skills, Not Pedigrees

A good place to start rethinking the recruiting process is at the top of the funnel, by cutting requirements in job ads to what’s truly essential—tossing out education and experience nice-to-haves—and hiring for fit rather than technical mastery of the role. 

Resumes, for example, won’t necessarily reveal a candidate’s creativity, willingness to work hard and love of learning, says Jennifer Carpenter, vice president of global talent acquisition at Delta Air Lines. “A candidate’s potential is far more relevant than any skill pedigree they may show up with.” 

“Education and tenure requirements act as a proxy for skill,” says Nicole Smith, a research professor and chief economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce in Washington, D.C. “As we know, they are not the best proxy, and there’s a lot of mismatch.”

Tanya Axenson, global head of human resources for Allegis Group, recommended that HR identify the core competencies needed for any job. “The question is, how much of that must someone possess when they sit in the chair on day one versus how much can be trained or taught?” she asked. “With the way jobs are changing more quickly, we’re finding that more organizations are willing to hire for the core and make sure that the person has the necessary soft skills to navigate the workplace, and then train for the rest.”

Soft skills—agility, creativity, teamwork, ability to learn—will survive the automated future, Smith says. “The jobs that endure will be the types of jobs that are not easily automated, where human reasoning is required.”  

Other strategies experts recommend:

Offering internship assignments and mentoring opportunities to high school students. “Getting in front of younger students is a creative way to influence people earlier on,” Axenson says. “There are careers and industries that kids may not even know exist.”

Recruiting outside the local labor market and in parts of the country where there’s a surplus of workers. “You’ve got to go where the talent is,” Axenson says. Increase flexibility and remote work options to attract those workers.

Raise Pay

In the end, companies that improve wages and benefits offerings will differentiate themselves in the market.

“Surveys consistently find that when it comes to recruitment, retention and job satisfaction, cash is king,” says Julia Pollak, a labor economist at ZipRecruiter, an online employment marketplace based in Santa Monica, Calif. Pollak explained that over the past year, employers have started competing for candidates by increasing bonuses and benefits faster than they increase salaries, cautiously preserving the flexibility to dial the perks back if the economy experiences another downturn.

If businesses can’t find workers—or can’t find workers with the right skills—they should raise wages, says Michael Strain, director of economic policy studies and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a public policy think tank in Washington, D.C. “Basic supply-and-demand logic suggests that doing so will broaden the pool of workers interested in the job and will make the job more desirable to applicants.”

Commercial airlines have raised starting pay for pilots, and retail and e-commerce companies like Target, Walmart and Amazon are hiking pay to compete for workers, Pollak says.

Hershey evaluated its competitive wage structure for entry-level hiring and was able to attract 25 percent more candidates, according to Walling. “We knew by raising wages jobs would be filled more readily, and we could get higher-caliber and more-diverse talent.”

While competitive compensation is important, it’s only part of the puzzle, Axenson says. “I think workers care tremendously about learning and development opportunities, and creative career paths matter just as much.”

Build Your Own Workforce

Change happens so quickly now that organizations consistently have to reinvent themselves … That means employees have to reinvent, too, by upgrading their skills and learning new ones,” says Rob Lauber, senior vice president and chief learning officer at McDonald’s. “Upskilling and reskilling will continue to be critical strategies, for learning and development and for business survival.” 

Hershey identifies high-potential talent in digital technology, manufacturing and leadership early on and places those individuals in accelerated development to not only jump-start its employees’ careers but also build its own capabilities.

“Internal development is the most effective way to ensure success,” Walling says. “We use data to determine what capabilities and skills we are going to need to develop three to five years out. Then we look at how to fill that pipeline. Do we have to buy those skill sets, or can we develop them?”

Companies that have been most successful with skilling programs have tied them to internal mobility, says Maria Ho, associate director of research for the Association for Talent Development in Alexandria, Va. “They’ve created career pathways, which lends more structure to a company’s skilling efforts. These programs have clear learning goals and progressive training, which lends clarity, motivation and a sense of reward.”

Atrium Health, a nonprofit health care network based in Charlotte, N.C., uses a rotation program to help employees develop new skills, says Rebecca Schmale, vice president of learning and organizational development. Selected individuals can do a one-month rotation at a smaller, high-performing hospital. “Participants work alongside the leadership team in that facility to observe and learn what they do differently from other locations. The rotation program gives them a full immersion into a different culture that achieves consistent success in the core areas of our business.”

Ho explained that while rotation programs can be successful, employees sometimes fear that time away from their jobs will damage their career, and managers aren’t eager to release workers for a protracted period.

Atrium Health addresses that issue by “backfilling” positions with high-potential employees to provide them with a development and skill-building experience when an employee is doing a rotation. “Knowing their responsibilities are covered frees those in the rotation to focus completely on learning while they’re away. For the organization, it satisfies concerns about how that work will be done while also helping us prepare potential future leaders.”

Internal certification programs, partnering with third-party training providers and offering financial assistance to employees for professional development have also been successful, Ho says. For example:

The National Retail Federation Foundation and large retailers such as Macy’s and Walmart created a training and credentialing program that helps people acquire skills needed for a range of retail jobs, including customer care, sales and merchandising, and workplace safety.

Amazon’s Career Choice tuition assistance program helps fulfillment center employees pursue certificates and degrees in high-demand fields. The company went further and constructed dedicated classrooms at its large fulfillment centers to make learning more accessible to participants who may attend class before or after their work shifts, or on days off.

Find Partners

Go straight to the source and get involved in designing curriculum that fits talent needs.

“The rate of change in technology developments far exceeds the capability of [college] faculty to update curriculum,” Smith says. “Schools just can’t keep up.” That has prompted some higher-ed institutions to create partnerships with local employers to help develop curriculum in exchange for a ready and qualified talent pipeline.

Hershey invests in colleges and universities to develop relationships with students and faculty to help identify top talent, teach classes, offer seminars and internships. “When it’s time to graduate, we have offers in hand. It’s an easy way to curate a deep bench of prospective talent and helps us address the skills gap,” Walling says.

Employers also shouldn’t overlook the advantages of partnering with schools pre-K through grade 12. “We should not assume that every kid’s goal is to finish high school and go to college. That’s been part of the problem,” Taylor says.

​Alternative education models, such as sector-based technology “boot camps” that offer training in coding, design and other digital skills applicable in fields as diverse as health care and marketing, have also emerged to meet employers’ demand. TechHire, for example, is a national network of communities, educators and employers that provides tech training to people without college degrees.

Customize Training

Offering apprenticeships is another way to help close the skills gap because employers can customize on-the-job training and instruction to the position, says Pamela Howze, a program director at the Washington, D.C.-based National Fund for Workforce Solutions, which helps create and support apprenticeships and other work-based learning programs across the country.

In Greensboro, N.C., employers and education providers have created a manufacturing partnership to develop a pipeline of skilled employees for the region’s advanced manufacturing industry, Howze says. The National Fund site in Cincinnati is working with the University of Cincinnati to provide pre-apprenticeship training in health care to ensure that individuals are prepared to succeed in an on-the-job learning environment.

Hershey’s industrial manufacturing technician apprenticeship is an 18-month program that includes on-the-job training and more than 200 hours of instruction. Upon completion, apprentices become journeymen, a nationally recognized credential certifying their expertise in the job.

For employers, using multiple approaches to build the skills of their current and future workforce is critical to bridging the skills gap.  

Roy Maurer is an online writer/editor for SHRM who focuses on talent acquisition.

Illustration by Richard Mia.