Wake Up, HR! Your Talent Supply Chain Has a Problem

Editor’s Note: This is the ninth of 12 essays from the new book, The Rise of HR; Wisdom From 73 Thoughts Leaders. It’s compiled by Dave Ulrich, Bill Schiemann and Libby Sartain, and sponsored by the HR Certification Institute.

By Lance J. Richards

I’m going out on a limb to argue that McKinsey might have erred a bit. (Very tough to argue against McKinsey research, right?)

Contrary to McKinsey’s 1997 assertion, the “war for talent” isn’t destined to continue through 2050.

It’s over. Done. Battle lost. Talent won.

Adapting to a brave new world

We, as employers and engagers of talent, lost. We, as HR professionals, are now having to adapt to this brave new world — whether we like it or not.

But this is actually no surprise. We’ve seen the demographics, we know the tightening in supply and demand. We know that the supply and demand equation for skilled talent is upside-down for the first time since … when? The Great Plague?

And we are faced with an inexorable problem.

We have people in the world. Lot’s of people. Some 6 billion people and growing.

But people, quite simply, do not always equal talent. Our core challenge today is converting all these people into skilled talent.

So first, how do we define talent? Well, it’s clearly “something above the ordinary.” There are a lot of definitions floating out there, but first I’ll give you mine. Talent, I believe, exists along a Bloomesque hierarchy. At the bottom of that hierarchy is simple data, simple counting of items or reading of information.

Turning data into information

A simple understanding of data, though, is insufficient to qualify as talent.

I’m seeking people a couple of steps further along this continuum. I view talent as the ability to take data and turn it into information. Then, talent (as I define it) can use this information to process and understand further data, to synthesize multiple information streams, and to apply that synthesis to create projections and situation resolutions.

Simply: Talent can convert data into actionable knowledge.

All of this requires an educational infrastructure. That is, we need a K–12 and college/university construct (let’s call it K–16) that effectively generates talent that can fulfill the myriad needs — and the various needs of the myriad components — of an existing, effective economy. (These needs are even more prominent in developing economies.)

It requires an educational infrastructure that converts people into the talent that our markets are demanding today, as well as tomorrow. If we can do that, then the talent shortage problem goes away. If we can’t? Oops — the shortage continues.

The challenge is that emerging markets, where population growth has the highest velocity, frequently lack the educational infrastructure to effectively convert people into talent. This is a problem when education is a core driver of talent, and therefore business.

A very real disconnect

In mature markets, where we do have strong educational infrastructure, our population growth is declining. We can convert people into talent, but we don’t have enough people to convert.

Then, to make things worse, we have a very real disconnect between what employers depend on and expect from new entrants into the workplace and what our K–16 educational infrastructure is delivering. This is exacerbated by the lack of communication and coordination between the business community and the educational community.

In fact, I’d argue that, to a very real extent, we have lost sight of the purpose — the end use — of education.

But there is light on the horizon. HR has a unique opportunity to lead the development of the world’s talent through a focus on engagement, involvement, and leadership in the current educational infrastructure.

What happens if HR doesn’t take the lead

To be clear, I believe that the end consumer of education is not solely the young girl in middle school; it’s not solely the young man entering college. They are, at least temporarily, the primary end consumers of the education process and industry. Their parents are proxies, of course, but more importantly, they may simply be billpayers. (The disengagement of parents in education is a subject for a very different essay.)

Once the K–16 educational infrastructure has completed its work, and a newly minted graduate — strike that, newly minted talent — enters the workforce, the end consumer of that education is now the employer.

In 2022, my daughter Brianna will head off to college. In 2026 or 2028, she will exit college and enter the workforce. Will she, along with all her peers, bring to our workplaces the things we need?

I’m not terribly concerned about core skills; I think that’s probably under good control. Work ethic? Employability? Workplace behaviors? There, I’m concerned.

My issues revolve around the application of skillsets, competencies, and behaviors — the abilities required to take data and convert it into information, and then synthesize that information into projections, understandings, analysis, and more.

And what about global consistency? Does freshly minted talent bring consistent behaviors and employability to the workplace?

Lacking the key elements of employability

I have firsthand knowledge of one single school system in Michigan. But what’s going on in Haderslev, Hangzhou, Houston, and Harare? From a global perspective, are they “pulling their weight?”

Can this fresh talent do all that? Who taught them? Were they even taught?

So, fast forward. It’s now 2026. We welcome my daughter and her peers into our workplaces. Then, stunningly, we realize that they enter with very different expectations, behaviors, knowledge, reasoning skills, and more. Our incoming workforce doesn’t have what we need!

They lack key elements of employability; they lack important thinking capabilities; they lack micro-cultural understanding of the workplace. Their skill sets? Well, the ‘90s called and asked if we could drop off some of their “taught” skillsets at the Smithsonian.

What happened?

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Like any good HR professionals, we launch into a flurry of activity. Knowledge management mechanisms are supremely advanced by now. We have embraced the difference between know-who and know-how. We understand the clear difference between “accessing” talent and “owning” talent. Further, we’ve leveraged all the available technology to reduce the impact of this disconnect and to mitigate the challenges to our business.

But what have we really done? Where do we go from here? There’s still that disconnect. So we start the gap analysis, and the root cause analysis.

Of course, there are things we could have been doing back in 2015 that would have made this far easier — things that may even have prevented us from getting to a place where the talent we hire lack the skills and capabilities our organizations need to succeed in the marketplace of 2026 and beyond.

We, as HR professionals, must immerse ourselves in the educational infrastructure — at both the K–12 and college/university levels.

Here’s what we should be doing.

K–12

What is your engagement with the K–12 schooling system? In Germany, Siemens has been investing in science and engineering kits and distributing them in grade schools to encourage early identification of engineering and mathematical potential and interest. Initiatives like this aren’t cheap, but they’re certainy cheaper (in the long term) than doing nothing.

If a school in your general area is having a “career day” (yes, they still do that!), you should be ready to send over not just one professional from your company but several. Identify people in finance, IT, operations, HR, and marketing. And make sure they’re ready not only to give realistic job previews but to talk about the skills and behaviors needed to succeed in work.

They will need to be able to discuss how work is done, what an office is, how we leverage technology in the workplace, etc. And they must be able to articulate this to students (remember, they process differently) and, frankly, to their teachers as well.

Every time you talk about a work situation and a high-school teacher says, “I didn’t know that!” then you’ve delivered on your goal.

Does your K–12 system have a business group, like an FBLA? You should be all over them.

Here’s why: Our government (and whether or not this is right is a very different discussion) has imposed a Common Core curriculum. School administrators and teachers have a very thin layer of discretion as to what to teach, and early “test runs” in various states have shown markedly lower scores than under “No Child Left Behind.” Although the goal is to unwind “teach to the test,” I’m still not sure we’re on the right track toward “college and career ready.”

What is not included is anything resembling “How do you interact with people in the workplace?” or “How do you develop and deliver thinking skills?” K–12 is obligated by law to deliver passing grades against a nationally standardized curriculum.

They are not focused on how these students are going to work out in the workplace.

Action items for HR

  • Find the three or four local middle schools and high schools in the area around your business.
  • Invite yourself over and chat with guidance counselors.
  • When they have a career day, offer to bring managers from your company from several disciplines.
  • Offer up classroom discussions during the year in different areas. Use these opportunites to help students and teachers understand what the workplace is seeking.
  • Explain the difference between skills and behaviors.
  • Explain why competency matters — and what it is!
  • Talk about social media and how they need to approach it now (in school) and when they get to your place. Explain its importance to their future. Talk about background checks!
  • Talk about how technology is (and isn’t) used in the workplace.

Are you telling them that, in the future, you’ll need them more than they need you? Yep, pretty much. But you’re also helping them understand that you only need them under X, Y, and Z circumstances. If they are talent, you need them.

Colleges and universities

What is your engagement with colleges and universities? Are you popping in once a year for a quick presentation and a few interviews with MBAs with 4.0s? Or are you contributing? What are you doing during the school year?

How many times a year does someone from your company visit a college career planning office to give presentations? How are you working with professors in your industry space to deliver guest lectures? (Hint: A guest lecture from a corporate executive means it’s one less class the professor has to teach!)

When you deliver these talks, what do you talk about? Are you explaining the key competencies and behaviors that your company (and everyone else) needs? Or are you saying something else?

Action items for HR

  • Become involved.
  • How many professors at your nearby colleges are you having regular discussions with?
  • What are you talking with them about? Are you discussing the content of their curriculum? Are you discussing the “soft skills” your business needs from college graduates?
  • Are you helping them understand the skills, behaviors, and competencies that your business (whatever that might be) needs?
  • Are you discussing social media?
  • Are you offering to guest lecture, so that you can directly tell students what sorts of behaviors and skills might be needed in the workplace — whether it’s your workplace or not?

A final word on engagement

So, is this just a rant about education? Not at all.

I’m flagging this as an area that HR needs to focus on in order to impact a very real future. As an organization inside of a business that is ostensibly tasked with the attraction, development, and retention of talent, we’ve got to start looking much further back, much earlier, in the talent supply chain if we want to really make an impact.

I am advocating that HR become more engaged in shaping and managing the front end of the development of talent. I believe that to do so, we must become directly involved in our K–16 education system.

(And yes, I think the K–16 education system needs to become more involved in business. But that’s a different paper for a different book!)

Compiled by Dave Ulrich, Bill Schiemann and Libby Sartain, and sponsored by the HR Certification Institute, The Rise of HR: Wisdom from 73 Thought Leaders is an anthology of essays addressing the critical issues facing business and talent professionals today. The full eBook can be downloaded @ www.riseofhr.com. Reprinted with permission of HRCI.

Lance Richards is a thought leader and workforce futurist, with more than 30 years of HR experience, the last 20 years focused on global HR. Most recently served as vice president of innovation for Kelly Services, where he also headed the company’s global HR consulting practice, based in Singapore. Richards joined Kelly in 2003 as head of international HR, accountable for HR across 26 countries and for more than 4,000 employees. Richards is also a visiting professor at the Sasin Graduate School in Bangkok, where he developed and teaches their MBA coursework in global human capital management. He previously held senior HR roles at Bell Canada, Verizon, and British Telecom, and has lived and worked in China, Singapore, and Thailand.

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