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Take a look at the future

By Phyllis Russell

The buzz about the mismatch between the skills of job seekers and the skills needed by employers is growing. The Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune recently featured back-to-back articles about the mismatch, and the CEO of Caterpillar spoke to a group of Canadian business people about his company's difficulty filling positions when "60 percent of applicants do not meet the typical standards to become an employee." A new Manpower survey reports, "52 percent of U.S. employers are finding it difficult to fill mission-critical positions, up from 14 percent in 2010. Skilled trades, sales representation and engineering positions are the top jobs that go unfilled." The problem spans a broad geographic reach and extends into multiple industrial sectors. But for industrial distributors and suppliers, it is a particularly acute problem, because our industry is virtually invisible to the outside world.

Given the reality that, across North America, we are not preparing enough young people to be skilled and capable employees today, let alone looking ahead, what can you do to compete for and successfully hire good employees who will help your company thrive and grow?

To get started, here are two critical questions for you to answer about your business:

What are your mission-critical positions now and looking ahead? What are the vital skills needed in those positions today and tomorrow?

Those are not easy questions to answer, even if you have a small or flat operation. You need to be very careful, as you map out positions and skills, that you start from today and look ahead rather than back. It's that vision thing – take the time to look for the big, significant trends in your staffing needs, and don't get stuck where you've been, or even where you are today.

"The future" has been a really hard ball to keep your eye on over the past few years. Instead of thinking about your company's long-term future, let alone your future staffing needs, most industry executives have been totally focused on getting through this day, this month, this quarter, as the pressing demands of today's issues seem to overwhelm. But the future will arrive nonetheless. The jobs and the way people do them will change. In fact, they are already changing.

One way to focus on the task is to map out two organization charts with mission-critical positions and key skills: one for today and the second looking five years out. You know what your org chart looks like today. How will it look in five years?

If you can't think of ways it will be different, ask for input from others. Consider bringing a visionary or two to this discussion, as well as younger people from your company. A group talking informally over lunch about the future can be immensely illuminating. Just be sure the ground rule for the discussion is that today's issues are not part of the discussion, compelling though they may be.

When your group is having this discussion, consider your customers, your business plan for growth, the changes in the marketplace and the workplace, emerging technologies and how these strategic considerations could affect your workforce needs. (Example: Are you seeing changes in the way important customers want to be serviced that will require shifts in how your team works?) Even if the future is unknown, you are always looking for trends, keeping your finger to the wind to gauge change.

Once you have outlined some ideas regarding the future look of your company, build your org/skillset charts. On the charts, next to each box, note the critical skills required for that position.

On the current org chart, assess whether retirement is on the horizon for key positions. Highlight "skillset vulnerabilities": Critical knowledge and skills that are very important but that may be in short supply with up-and-coming talent. Finally, consider whether you would likely re-hire for that same skillset if the position were to become open in the near-term. Or would you look for something new?

Now create the second org chart. What will your team need to look like in five years? Overlay the two org charts denoting critical skills.

You can easily see where change will be taking place so you can identify the skills you will need from new employees and where you'll likely need knowledge transfer. Can you:

  • put current staff in the future org chart boxes, taking into account what you know about likely retirements or transitions?
  • match up today's staff against tomorrow's needed key skills for mission-critical positions?
  • highlight gaps or weaknesses in tomorrow's needed knowledge and skills?
  • determine which skill gaps are position-specific and which are broader-based transformations that require an organizational change in how business is done?
  • address skills or knowledge gaps through training or hiring the right person with specific skills or knowledge?


With this analysis, you are preparing to build your staff of the future. Capture the answers to these questions and you will have a useful information resource.

Then recognize a basic truth of planning: The world will change in ways we cannot foresee, so our plan will undoubtedly change. Don't let that stop you from taking a look to the future. Step away from today's concerns for a few hours and focus on five years out. The future will not wait until you have more time to prepare.

More on building a workforce to compete tomorrow in future columns.

Phyllis RussellPhyllis Russell is executive director of the Industrial Careers Pathway (ICP) Initiative and the PTDA Foundation. For more information, go to or contact her at

This article originally appeared in the Nov./Dec. 2011 issue of Industrial Supply magazine. Copyright 2011, Direct Business Media.


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