23 March 2021

The Skills Obsession: The Price of Skills Debt

Stacia Garr
Co-founder & Principal Analyst

TL;DR

  • This is the 2nd episode of our podcast: The Skills Obsession.
  • In this episode, Stacia Garr and Dani Johnson of RedThread and Chris Pirie of LITNW interview Matthew Daniel of Guild Education.
  • The result of learning and talent development not doing their job is the reason he thinks we are creating skill debt.
  • Find out why he thinks skills are important right now.
  • “Experience tells me a lot more than a list of skills. I want to know how you use those skills.” Matthew Daniel
  • A special thanks to our sponsor, Workday, for its support of this season!

Listen

Listen to my podcast

Guests

Matthew Daniel, Principal Consultant of Guild Education

DETAILS

“When software releases went from Microsoft releasing once every other year to releasing 16 times a week, you know, like all that started to happen; our ability to keep up with the world around us really started to decline.” Whatever else he is (and he is many good things), Guild Education’s Matthew Daniel is genuinely passionate about skills. Scrub that: he’s agonized about them—and he’s even more agonized about the trouble we’re storing up for ourselves as a society around them. As we find out in our hour together, he fears we’re wasting a lot of time and missing a lot of opportunity chasing the wrong metrics about them, ignoring vast swathes of the ones our workforces (especially our frontline teams) have. But his agony does lead to positivity, and we think you’ll agree with him when he says the original purpose that got so many of us into L&D will help us win through.

Follow Matthew Daniel on LinkedIn here

Find out more about Matthew and his work at Guild here

Check out some of his many independent thought leadership pieces for CLO magazine here

Webinar

Workday will host an exclusive live webinar towards the end of the season, where you can meet the Workplace Stories team of Dani, Stacia and Chris, and join in a conversation about the future of skills and skills management. Find out more information and access content at www.workday.com/skills. 

Partner

We're also thrilled to be partnering with Chris Pirie, CEO of Learning Futures Group and voice of the Learning Is the New Working podcast. Check them both out.

Season Sponsor

We are very grateful to Workday for its exclusive sponsorship of this season of the Workplace Stories by RedThread Research podcast. Today, the world is changing faster than ever, and you can meet those changing needs with Workday; its one agile system that enables you to grow and re-skill your workforce. Workday is a financial, HR and planning system for a changing world.  

TRANSCRIPT

Five Key Quotes:

When computing moved to the cloud, the frequency of upgrades to software and new innovation that could happen started moving at such a pace. I just finished Michelle Weise's book Long Life Learning, and there's actually a graph in there that talks about where humans were kind of in front of the technology, and then there was a point where technology moved in front of humans. I think it's been pronounced at different times, we’ve definitely had that, but I think when things moved into the cloud, automation became something happening more quickly. When software releases went from Microsoft releasing once every other year to releasing 16 times a week, you know, like all that started to happen; our ability to keep up with the world around us really started to decline.

I think there are a lot of days that we in talent development can't see the forest for the trees. We get really caught up in semantics, in instructional design methodology, in which learning system we're going to have, and whether we're doing workflow learning

I work in learning and talent development in companies. And she says, Oh, so you're one of the people that helps people that already have skills get more skills.

If a CEO comes to a CLO and says, do we have the skills for the future? The way they will know that is not because they have a skills cloud, it’s because their intimacy with the business leaders and business strategy lets them articulate where the business is going.

What skills should we have? How do we solve this?—from deep down in the deepest of my gut, I am saying, do not forget why you decided to do this. Stay focused on the impact that we have. Do good work. Solve the problems, but ultimately do not lose sight of our frontline, of our non-exempt employees of the talent and potential we have in our organizations, and let's go change the world. Let's make it better. Let's do the work, figure it out, and leave the world better when it's all said and done then than where it is today.

Dani Johnson:
Today, we talk to Matthew Daniel of Guild Education.

Matthew Daniel:
We are creating skill debt. I personally think that when I look in the mirror and I look at 88 million Americans—and maybe you don't love that number, you want to cut in half, whatever the number is you want to take—we have a skill shortage. And that skill shortage is the result—brace yourself—it’s a result of Learning and Talent Development not doing their job. And I celebrate that number, because it's so much opportunity; never have we mattered more!

Dani Johnson:
Matthew Daniel is the principal consultant on the employer solutions team at Guild Education. His focus is on supporting Fortune 500 companies to put together plans to up-skill and re-skill their talent for the future of work, especially in light of COVID.

Guild is at the forefront of the future of the work movement. They partner with Fortune 500 companies and nonprofit universities to offer educational benefits to their employees with a focus on frontline workers. Some of their partners include America's largest companies like Walmart, Disney, Discover, Taco Bell and Chipotle.

I have the opportunity to talk to Matthew about once a month about skills re-skilling, skilling 2.0, and everything that's going on with respect to it, and I found that he has a really interesting perspective when it comes to skills and its impact on frontline workers and diversity and inclusion. One of the things that captivates me about how Matthew speaks about skills is his ability to think about things differently. Matthew steps out of the traditional way that we talk about skills and introduces this concept of ‘perishable’ skills versus ‘durable’ skills that I find really intriguing.

Dani Johnson:
Matthew, welcome; we’re very happy to have you today on our podcast about Skills. This season, we're talking about all things skills, and you and I have had several conversations about the ins and outs of what's going on in that world, so thank you very much for joining us.

Matthew Daniel:
Yeah, it means I’ve been given the opportunity to get on the phone and rant and rave about skills. We're going to do it, so thanks for the opportunity to chat.

Dani Johnson:
But you're one of the most passionate people I've ever talked to you about this, so we're, we're very excited to have you here just to start out. I'm wondering if you can give us a brief overview of you and your work at Guild, kind of what you do.

Matthew Daniel:
So me as a human; I’ll just say 15 years in learning and talent development, and I guess longer than that now, but [I am] incredibly passionate about helping people develop the skills that they need to go be successful, to be better, to do better, and the impact that that has on families and generations long after this moment.

And so that makes me really passionate. That's brought me to Guild, and Guild has this mission really to unlock opportunity for America's workforce, specifically through education; we use a double-bottom-line business model that does well by doing good. So if I say that a little bit differently Guild is a B Corp, and that allows us to a) really work with both on the education side, the learning side, and with corporations to put together education benefits in a way that a gets to business strategy and b) really elevates the employee experience.

We’re hyper-focused on the frontline early career employees, and so we built out this dynamic learning marketplace with universities and learning partners that focus on serving adult working learners. These aren't colleges and universities that are focused on 18 to 22 year olds; these are really programs that are focused on people who have jobs, who have kids, who have a regular job, life, and help them develop new skills.

I actually work directly with the employer partners. So we have employers that come to us like Chipotle, Walmart, Disney, folks like that, who are trying to transform their workforce to engage their workforce. And so I get to work with a team of economists and learning folks and I get to work with consultants who are looking at business strategy and really thinking about talent a couple of years down the line, and how do we actually build out programs and policies that help move people in an organization into these programs, and then really develop the skills that are needed for a couple of years down the line to help the business actually execute on strategy.

Dani Johnson:
It sounds fascinating and it sounds super necessary right now, given the state of the world. I want to ask you a question about your own skills; tell us a little bit about the skills that you need for your work today, and how you got them.

Matthew Daniel:
Number one, obviously is talent strategy, and that is a thing that I got from doing. I was in-house at Capital One, I’ve been around learning and talent development for a while, and I've gotten to see it at a number of large organizations. Usually at moments of transformation, I started with GP Strategies and we did a lot of outsourcing in the learning space; they still do, but it gave me a chance to be at places like Microsoft or Cigna or Bristol-Myers Squibb at the moment that they were changing the way they were approaching learning. And so I got to see a lot of how you build an L&D function in a way that actually supports the business. And then I went in-house at Capital One and had the great fortune of being there in the middle of our digital transformation, and so that skill of how do I think about the talent I have and up-skill those folks and how am I bringing in the right talent, and then what is the up-skilling even the right talent needs whenever they land that came through reps.

Another skill: writing and research is a part of my job, and I wanted to give a plug to Ms. Linda Williams in Whitehall High School for Junior Level Advanced Grammar; I have never had a better writing course in my life than I had my junior year of high school. So like that skill that I take and use every day, everywhere, was something that started there. And of course it just got better. On the research side, I have historiography, I have a BA in history and historiography, if you don't know it it's like the way that history is written. It was one of my favorites; I didn't even know what it was. It was one of my favorite courses in the world of fake news. Like the first time that I read three chapters on Reconstruction by different authors who like saw that through different frames, I just realized how much bias we bring to them, which has really been a skill, you know, over the years that has served me well, as I'm trying to look at business strategy and think about like, how do we approach this and how is my own bias weighing into the solutions I'm bringing to the table anyway. And that's about enough about that.

Stacia Garr:
You and I are like soul twins on this; I’m a historian as well, and my favorite courses were on propaganda. And then also similarly I took a single course, whatever, 12 weeks on Abraham Lincoln, I read like 10 different books on Abraham Lincoln and how they all portrayed him differently and how the authors were influenced by where they were in the time in history,and all this other stuff.

Chris Pirie:
We have a whole ‘poets versus quants’ kind of thing through the whole season emerging here. Hope the best one wins!

Dani Johnson:
We talked a lot yesterday about soft skills and how some of our non-traditional backgrounds have really helped us in the work that we do now, especially the research and the writing and those types of things. It was interesting that we think our kids think when they get out of college, that's what they're going to be doing the rest of their lives. That's hardly ever true; I think about, I mean, I graduated with a master's degree in mechanical engineering, and I am worlds away from that.

Matthew Daniel:
All I wanted from college was to get out for three and a half years, because my big goal was just to get the credential; like, I didn't want to go to college, I really just knew that the credential played into my opportunities in the future. And I came from a family where literally no-one had ever graduated from college before, and I was a first-generation college grad, and I just knew it was important to open doors. Other than that, like all I wanted, History was the thing that I could stay engaged with and like to take 20 hours a semester and finish. And so that's what I did.

Dani Johnson:
That's awesome. But I want to switch over a little bit to just kind of skills in general. So why do you think skills are hot or important right now?

Matthew Daniel:
Skills were always a bit of a challenge. I mean, if we go back decades, but ultimately when computing moved to the cloud, the frequency of upgrades to software and new innovation that could happen started moving at such a pace. I just finished Michelle Weise's book Long Life Learning, and there's actually a graph in there that talks about where humans were kind of in front of the technology, and then there was a point where technology moved in front of humans. I think it's been pronounced at different times, we’ve definitely had that, but I think when things moved into the cloud, automation became something happening more quickly. When software releases went from Microsoft releasing once every other year to releasing 16 times a week, you know, like all that started to happen; our ability to keep up with the world around us really started to decline.

So I think why skills are hot in one form is like innovation, cloud technology, automation; I think on another broader issue of like, why is it hot in companies? Ultimately, buying our way out of talent shortages through talent acquisition is not a sustainable approach. It's pushing wages higher, it's in HR, talent acquisition is large, is highly operationally focused and is a large volume of activity in the organization. And it is just not sustainable to continue. I mean, there was a time in companies where all promotions hired from internal talent, like over 70% of what you had was coming from internal, that change really pushed outside, we needed skills and we were infusing it from outside the organization, but ultimately it's not a great business strategy to always think you can hire all the skills you need in the future.

And so this is from a talent development lens. It's really pushed us in my opinion, into a conversation about skills continuously, because we're not just needing to hire it, it’s not sustainable to hire it the way we are now we've got to develop those skills, and so it's become a kind of an economic conversation about supply versus demand. And it just has pushed that conversation to the top.

Dani Johnson:
That's really interesting. I don't ever, I don't think I ever sort of glommed onto the fact that the term talent shortage comes from, you know, acquiring talent from the outside. If you were continuously developing your people, you'd never have a talent shortage.

Matthew Daniel:
Right.

Dani Johnson:
Talk to me a little bit about soft skills in relation to what you just said, because I agree with you that, you know, the cloud has definitely accelerated everything. We had a great conversation with Lisa Kay Solomon and she talked a lot about soft skills and design and some of those types of things. I'm interested to understand how those soft skills fit into the conversation.

Matthew Daniel:
Yeah, this is so interesting.

Dani Johnson:
And I know you don't call them ‘soft’ skills.

Matthew Daniel
I don’t. You know, here's the thing—I think I'm going to go on a tirade for just a second, you guys figure out how you use this—I think there are a lot of days that we in talent development can't see the forest for the trees. We get really caught up in semantics, in instructional design methodology, in which learning system we're going to have, and whether we're doing workflow learning. And does it all matter, like, I don't know if this is appropriate for a podcast, but some of that is just ultimately bullshit, like, go ahead and put the bleep over by word there. But ultimately we are spending a lot of time and energy around it, should it be called soft and hard and all those things end up being more marketing focused than they are substantive in the field that we're in.

Ultimately, here's the challenge that I think we're up against: we have 88 million Americans who don't have the skills they need to lead us into the future of work. And that's a problem. And so taking a step back. I think we, through both working in Entangled and working at Guild, we had a project that we were doing for a university that was trying to figure out how do we handle lifelong learning: how do we handle the complexity of what is people coming in and out of the university throughout a very long life, and where their real challenges that they're up against? And about that time, you've also got this Bersin by Deloitte data point, it’s made it all over the place and it was based on other research, but it was the durability of skill or the half-life of skills is roughly five years; in the more technical, it’s closer to two and a half. And so the response from the L&D community has been, especially in this cloud-based technology, it's all changing is to start to index heavily on, then we have to build an entire organization, systems, tools, models, so that we are constantly pumping out shorter content more frequently. Like that was the response to that data point. And a lot of it has to do with marketing. Right? Like everybody launched latched on to that con that concept. And they were like, great; make it short, make it fast, get just the skill you need and go. And what we said is, okay, wait,let's just take that some school skills are more durable and some are less durable. And let's think about the implications of that in itself, which is to say if the entire L&D function spins up a ton of energy around just pumping out perishable skills, are we creating the talent that needs to lead us to the future, or are we just going to have to constantly keep finding talent as a result? We're going to have to go shop for whatever company has talent that's two years ahead of me? Great, Capital One went through the digital transformation five years ago I'm going through it now, so I'll just go hire all their talent because they've already done this thing, they have those skills rather than looking at my people and going, like, do we have the durable skills that we need in our shop to get through this transition, to get through this change, have I built a workforce?

And let me just talk about when I say durable versus perishable, what we kind of separated into three buckets and the way that we talk about it and think about it. There are highly durable skills, and these are dispositions of ways of thinking and acting at this really broad scale. Then there's semi-durable skills, which we kind of classify as frameworks or methodologies. They stick around longer than just what technology you're using today, but they may not last as long as this disposition about for you, the way that you go do critical research, right? You have a way of thinking of the world, of taking really complex ideas as an analyst and breaking it down and solving the problem you use methodology or semi-durable approaches, which changed every couple of years, they're more stable. And then on the last bracket, we talk about perishable skills. So that's generally probably more related to technology; I mean, let's be honest, Microsoft Word is about as reliable a skill as you could have gotten, right? Like technology versus soft or, you know, those things don't really matter, the question is how durable is the skill, in my opinion. And so when we start thinking of that, if we think of agile, you know, durable agile skills or taking really complex products and bringing it down in the minimum viable products, that's the dispositional skill of being able to do that. You do that through scrum and kanban, those are your semi-durable methodologies. And then ultimately you're using, you know, whatever the platform is, Asana or a JIRA or whatever that thing is. And knowing how to use that tool to live out the method, to then live out the concept of delivering—those are kind of in higher order. So here's the thing, Asana you're going to replace that in three years, we all live in America, we know like you're going to replace that whole technology over and over again. The method is a little more stable, but the disposition is the thing that is most stable or durable.

So here's where that landed us. If some skills are more perishable and some skills are more durable, what are the implications of that? And the more that I thought about this, and of course, Guild brings this lens to the table where we're constantly thinking about the frontline, If I think about the way that I distribute the development of skills in my organization and if I'm really honest, when I look in the mirror, I give the most durable, dispositional skills to executives, to leaders, Ivy League grads, because like number one that costs me the most to hire and number two, like I'm going to make the investment because they're going to be my leaders. And then we look at the frontline and we kind of look at them and go, well, you know, heck, you're making $17 an hour, you’re going to go somewhere else or we're going to replace you. So let's just teach you how to click the button in the system that we have today to make sure that you can do the task that we have.

And to a certain degree, I think workflow learning in the concept of embedded learning, reinforces that concept more than anything. I mean, if workflow learning is about doing while learning, which is a little bit different to me where you're thinking about how do I actually practice the skill? That's one thing. But if workflow is embedded from the sense of learn how to click the button or learn how to say the thing, when you get the phone call or just super-tactically, what process do I use today to process this thing in my large company, then all I am giving you, over and over, is a perishable skill. You guys have worked in the technology world, we call when you make bad decisions about coding a system to give a user what they want, we call it technical debt. We're like, Oh, you want that button on that page? Well, the architecture of our system doesn't really work that way, but we'll give you that button, and we just know every release we have to maintain that. It's a problem, It's trouble, but we’ll go do that thing.

We are creating skill debt. I personally think that when I look in the mirror and I look at 88 million Americans, and maybe you don't love that number, you want to cut in half, whatever the number is you want to take, we have a skill shortage. And that skill shortage is the result—brace yourself—it’s a result of learning and talent development not doing their job. And I celebrate that number because it's so much opportunity—never have we mattered more!

But honestly, when I look at that, as somebody who's been in this field for 15-plus years, it breaks me to think that we have created an industry that ultimately sells products so well and has a growing budget and it's doing great things, and yet the impact that we're having is diminishing in terms of impact, especially the frontline employees who right now in a K-shaped recovery of an economy are taking the greatest hits.

Something is fundamentally broken about the way that we're thinking about this. And I don't know that I have the solution to it, but what I do think is that if we walked into to developing our talent and a) didn't say, oh, you’re frontline employees so we don't need to invest less, but b) if we also said, how do I make sure that while I'm teaching you to click the button, because you know, by God, you've got to do that thing and keep it going, how do I make sure that I'm giving you frameworks or similar durable skills and dispositions, or ways of thinking about problems and solving problems and approaching the world that set you up to last in this company longer and set us up as a company to be better able to navigate the next challenge without me just teaching you how to click the button.

Dani Johnson:
That was very eloquent and I want to point out that you wrote an article on this in CLO magazine, and we'll put the link on the page so that the people can get to that. And I think the emphasis that you put on frontline workers leads me to my next question is, you know, how do skills and access to data about skills affect diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging?

Matthew Daniel:
Ultimately, if this way of thinking about skills and the investment that we make in frontline skills, being more focused on throwaway skills, how to use the processes and tools that they have, the reflection moment that I have in that is that we—learning and development—could be reinforcing systemic inequities more than we care to admit.

Quick story. I'm starting at Entangled; it’s a lot of people who don't come from workforce learning. There's this young lady, she’s probably 24, 25 years old, she’s fresh out of grad school, she’s got an MBA. She's smart. We meet for one-on-one. I said, Hey, I'm Matthew, I work in learning and talent development in companies. And she says, Oh, so you're one of the people that helps people that already have skills get more skills. And I was like, I'm one of the people who takes everybody who graduates from college and gets them ready for the workforce. You know what kind of like in my head, I went on this whole, but that question—her name is Frances, that question that Frances asked me—that kept me up at night for the next couple of months, because I started asking myself if I reframe that question, was she fully informed in that question? Absolutely not, I mean, look, there’s Capital One as an example, there were 400 of us supporting 3000 roles where there are 30,000 defined skills, we’re trying to figure out how to keep the business running—it’s a hard job, right?

And this whole thing of skills is super hard, but ultimately I think we, forgive me for using the phrase, we kind of whitewash this issue, through like making courses and opportunities. Like, we go to our business resource group and we create some special employee resource group, whatever you call them, that we create kind of programs for diverse talent, a cohort of 20 per year to get into some kind of access, or we make our courses more diverse in terms of the representation in the course. And we're like, Oh, we pat ourselves on the back that we're doing work towards equity. And I think a really hard look that I've had to do in the mirror this year in reflection over the past 12 months is that I have stood up systems, created policies, established processes, all in the name of fiscal responsibility about, you know, how much do we have to spend on external content and what's our budget for these courses and how many people can we pay to have license to the system. And we have, over and over, eliminated the people at the end of the spectrum, frontline talent, from access to our content, to our systems. And ultimately not only have we created our own skill shortage by only focusing on the task in front of us; we've also robbed the opportunities from the talent.

We say all the time, talent is equally distributed, opportunity is not. And ultimately we in L&D may be robbing our organizations of some of the greatest potential in talent, because they sit in the frontline and they're non-exempt employees and so they just don't get access to content or the systems or the programs or the mentoring or the class. I think of Capital One, here's, you know, you're going to be an executive you come in and one of these rotational programs and we give you how the business makes money in presentation skills and storytelling skills, and we give you all those things, and then we wonder why the folks at that end of the spectrum performed better than folks in the frontline. We are clearly segmenting, I guess, is the kind word, but we are, we are dividing our talent. And that frontline talent is where most of our poverty employees that come from poverty live, where our employees that come from rural backgrounds, from black backgrounds and, and, and other people of color, we, we take those people and we do it in our heads by separating exempt versus non-exempt. But essentially what we're doing is we're locking down access to more skills to the people who would benefit the most from it. And I think that requires a hard reflection on if we're making the right decisions and what part we play.

Dani Johnson:
We completely agree—this has been a soapbox of ours for, I don't know, eight or nine months now. We're exempting the frontline, and we're also exempting those that aren't considered quote, unquote leadership or high potential. And so we basically rate people early on in their careers and that's who they are the rest of their careers, there’s not an opportunity to get out, which is kind of horrifying given the fact that we've made so many leaps and bounds to scale learning. It doesn't cost us as much as it used to, but we're still making that distinction between the haves and the have-nots when it comes to developing skills and giving knowledge.

Stacia Garr:
The potentially intriguing thing about skills, though, is that we may be able to use it to circumvent some of these decisions that we've made. So if you think back, you know, you mentioned Matthew, you’re, you know, first-generation college graduate, you know, there are plenty of other really smart people out there who may not have graduated college who have only a High School degree. My brother actually is one of them; he owns his own business, there was no big corporation that was going to take him because he doesn't have a college degree, but he’s an incredibly effective human being.

And so I'm wondering if, is there an opportunity for us to think about skills as a way to maybe bypass some of the traditional gates that we've put in place? You know, Dani and I have talked about how, you know, the requirement for a college degree for a lot of jobs is a little bit of a ridiculous thing. And so can we turn to skills instead as a way to think about, you know, whether it's the credentialing or it's the certification that someone can do the job, as a way to get around some of those gates that we've put in place that disproportionately impact some of these diverse communities.

Matthew Daniel:
Yeah, it’s a great question. And companies are doing that. I mean, there are companies who are getting a lot of notoriety for this. I think IBM has like 15% of their workforce that they are making, we call that skill-based hiring, right? That's the industry term for it. So you have companies like IBM, or Google has come out and said, they'll make hires that way, Apple’s done the same way. I even have a friend at Humana. They have, I think, eliminated ‘college graduates’ from something like 50% of their job postings, which is really significant. So does skill-based hiring help make up that ground? I hope and would wholly agree, but that has to be one of a part of an ecosystem.

So let's go back to what we talked about a moment ago. What, like, what's the big thing that we're trying to solve and it's an entire ecosystem. The people who help determine what skills you get are your state government in K-12, it's your universities, both private and public, in college, it's workforce development boards, state agencies then county structures. You have those of us in the workplace that are trying to develop school skills. And quite frankly, all of us are speaking different languages. We're using different skills, we're using different approaches. We're using a different technology—in fact, there aren't a whole lot of places we even interact with each other. You know, one of the reasons I loved Macy's learning conference is because all the K-12 and higher ed people that showed up, like I really thought it was weird for a really long time. What are they doing here with all of us learning people, but ed tech and corporate learning technology are getting closer and closer every single year. And so I think you're right on, and I want to see the whole world move to this, I actually have a piece coming out, hopefully in the spring about this concept of both skill-based hiring. But I think the other side of that is going to be when we do skill-based hiring, we need to acknowledge that there are going to be gaps. One of the things that I want to see in this world of skill-based hiring is this greater integration of talent acquisition and talent development. As a matter of fact, I just got a new mentor at the beginning of the year, and my new mentor is in talent acquisition because I just feel like I don't know enough about what happens on that side of the fence. And then in many organizations, excuse me, talent acquisition, talent development are a bit disassociated except for, with hypos, right, because hypos, we got to hire them, but we know they don't have all the things we need. So we're going to put them in these development programs, these really rich development programs.

And I think in this skill-based hiring world, if we walk into that and believe that we're going to hire all the skills that we need by eliminating the college degree, I don't think that's realistic, I think we're deluding ourselves. So there has to be a way that talent development and talent acquisition work together. And so I think of like gateway jobs skills that let's take a CSR, customer support rep, right? Most companies are loaded with CSRs, lots of talent there and there's a lot of need in computer user support specialists, it’s like a 11% growth over the next five years, as far as jobs go and so there's a lot of skill-matching.

To your point, where if we did better at looking at that from a skill standpoint, instead of just looking at a degree, we could actually say, well, you know, I could take you here and with one one month bootcamp, I could not hire a bunch of college grads and I could take people out of my call centers where I had a whole lot of talent, and move them over and easy to replace talent easier, certainly then computer user support. So if I start looking at what some of those pathways are in the organization and I intentionally build the infrastructure between talent acquisition and talent development to make sure I'm skilling people for that, then that can be a really successful approach in my mind. But it has to, it's an ecosystem, right? We're back to this; it’s a really big problem, and it needs really good partners within the organization and outside the organization who are looking at it and helping you solve it. But ultimately you put college degree as an on the job description and you've eliminated 76% I believe is the number of black candidates, and something like 80% of Latinx candidates. So like, yes, we will never get to equitable opportunities as long as we're making a degree a toll-gate.

Chris Pirie:
Could you talk briefly about the relationship between skills and experience? It seems to me as a hiring manager, one of the things that I would pivot more strongly on is somebody's experience rather than a sort of a list of skills that frankly are hard to describe and define?

Matthew Daniel:
So I've been a hiring manager; that’s one of the things that's always interesting in this conversation to me are people who talk a lot about skills, but have not really had to hire many people. I had a team of about 15 at Capital One and that 15 folks, each one of those job postings brought in more than a hundred people who applied for that job. And so I do think we have a technology gap here that just isn't scaled, the applicant tracking system just doesn't do a good job of helping us get through this issue, and it's just easier to put a college degree is like the thing that helps us. But Chris, the question is super-valid from the standpoint of how I don't just want to see a list of skills, right? I'm going to list skills that are no more valuable to me than the name of a college degree—maybe even less so. I do want to see the experience or the story. And then on the other side, we're still telling you, but I need a one page resume that you submit here. Like, we are putting this pressure on candidates that is just unreasonable. And we're putting pressure on hiring managers that's unreasonable. If you're getting 80 resumes, I mean, a good recruiter is filtering through that and giving you the 12, but also I didn't always trust my recruiters, I went through a lot of resumes myself and was like, did you see this project they worked on, this is exactly what I need. That's what I need. What's not in your job description. Well, you told me I needed to keep the job description consistent so that we didn't have any risk on compensation analysis. Right? Like this whole system is somehow broken.

But ultimately, yeah, you're right: the experience tells me a lot more than a list of skills. I want to know how you use those skills. And the example there is agile; when somebody says I've worked with agile, my question is what I mean, what does that mean? Like, does that mean you understand kanban or scrum again, the, the kind of middle skills. Do you understand how to use JIRA? Like you so good? You can put stories into, that’s one part of agile, or do you get it at a fundamental level or the dispositional level where you're thinking about how do I take really complex things and break it up? Which I also think is where some of the skill libraries that we have available to us fail us. When you get one word like agile to describe something that is massively complex, it does not tell me what I need to know.

Chris Pirie:
I'll give you an example of that. We looked at a skill library from, in my previous role from a very, very large provider who claimed to have hundreds of thousands of skills documented in their library, and we were rolling out cloud computing and we needed people who were skilled in managing containers. And it turns out that if you went to this skills library and looked at managing containers, it was always about moving big metal boxes around. So, you know, I think that the essence of this for me is we don't have the language to describe what we're talking about; it’s not precise enough that we can bring technology to bear on this problem of mixing the job that needs to be done with the people who have the capability to do it in a very friendly manner working on them.

Matthew Daniel:
That's right. You have like MZ partnering with Western Governors partnering with Salesforce and Google to work on the open skills network. So they're working on what is a definition of a rich skill descriptor, and putting context around it—MZ’s working on skills, not even just in language, but clustering, they're using machine learning to figure out what the clusters give context to a skill. So there is good work happening here, but it's not baked into the systems that we have today, it’s not baked into the processes and it's going to get better. Like I am a hopeful person; we are going to figure this out, the world is going to get better, but my God is it painful between now and then to see how broken it is and know that we want it to be more.

Chris Pirie:
I love the optimism, and I share your frustration about the capabilities of L&D teams; I mean, my life's work now is trying to fix that, or at least draw attention to it. And many people in the future might not have—in fact, many people today—might not have an L&D department, right? I'm a gig worker. I have stitched together five or six different jobs—we’re already 10 years from Daniel Pink's book Free Agent Nation, right? So what do you think about people who exist outside of corporations? It seems to me this fixing this is very important for them.

Matthew Daniel:
I'm just going to own that. I have spent almost the entirety of my career focusing on the Fortune 500. I actually, because I was thinking about this exact question this morning, I was looking up, my three-year-old is like, what are you doing, Daddy, can I have more cereal? And I am on my phone going and how many employees are represented by the Fortune 500, right? Like I am thinking about this exact question and how many people, it leaves out of the equation and quite frankly, small business, which makes up 50% of our economy, they don't have the means to do what we're talking about here. I mean, you're talking about gig workers, and gig workers have the obligation on their own to develop, and I was actually looking at some data on this, not too long ago in the IT space gig workers actually keep their skills up better than people who are in-house, so I think gig workers are less of a problem than small business employees, who need to have access to skill development, but are unlikely to get that coming from their own business.

Which is why I go back to the ecosystem; this is where I think having learning partners and some kind of a guide to help them get there that's not just selling me something, like I need a third party to help me make this journey in my own talent development that's not biased to just their own content, which unfortunately is what I get a lot of times.

Chris Pirie:
I have one more quick question, and this is on my soapbox, to use Dani’s phrase, is about the granularity with which we manage all this stuff a little bit related to the last question. You said something like 30,000 defined skills at one of your customers or one of the places where you've worked; in my experience, it all gets unmanageable very, very quickly. So what would your advice be to a learning leader today who is getting questions from their CEO about, do we have the skills for the future? And is being pulled by the industry into this big mapping exercise that's going to consume trillions of person hours. What would your advice be on how to think about the skills that my organization needs?

Matthew Daniel:
Are you sure Dani didn’t set you up to ask this question? Okay. So Dani and I have talked about this a bit, because I do think it's too unwieldy. I think that there are companies and organizations who have the means and capacity to go take on the entire skills cloud and figure out exactly what skills are needed and what the frameworks are. I think many organizations, especially in the scrappy L&D world, need… if a CEO comes to a CLO and says, do we have the skills for the future? The way they will know that is not because they have a skills cloud, it’s because their intimacy with the business leaders and business strategy lets them articulate where the business is going.

On that one, I want to nail it on the head that no matter how good the technology gets, it is not going to predict what skills are needed in the future, at least not anytime in the near future. You need to get that through your awareness of what's happening in the business and your ability to see what's coming down the pike—acquisitions, decisions about different products, all those kinds of things that's where that insight about whether or not you have the skills for the future should be.

The other thing that I'll say about this, and this is where Dani and I have spoken: I know the whole world is moving towards skills. I had a piece in Training magazine, not too long ago where I said like, don't figure out all the skills in your company—there are 30,000. Here's what I want you to do; I want you to go find the 10 jobs that are in greatest demand in your organization, and map the skills for just those 10 jobs. And then I want you to go find the 10 places where you are most likely to automate or lay people off, and I want you to go find their skills. And then I went from each of those, it's unlikely that one is going to match to the other, right? If ‘data scientist’ is your greatest demand, it's unlikely that CSRs are going to get you there in a short term, in, you know, six months of learning. What is more likely, though, is CSRs gets you to computer user support specialist, and computer user support specialists gets you to engineering. And then we have these kind of two-step processes: instead of solving for 30,000 skills, solve for the top 10 in-demand jobs and the top 10 in-decline jobs. And those are going to take you through; you'll end up mapping a solid 30 to 40 roles in your organization, but you'll actually have something you can go do three months from now. If you try and map the entire skill framework for your company three years from now, you will call me and say, well, we were getting really close and then we changed out our HCM, or we were getting really close and we decided to go with a new concept provider, or we've decided to old LSP, or it's always going to be disrupted by what's in the ecosystem, go solve the problem, get that done, earn the credibility, get better at it. And then you'll know whether that skills cloud actually is valid whenever it shows up at your door.

Stacia Garr:
I just want to comment, because I think that for kind of on the people analytics side, we've been doing a lot of this type of work with workforce planning, strategic workforce planning, but I want to kind of call out the thing that I think is maybe different than what you said, Matthew, which is this idea of kind of the two-step or even potentially three-step process where you truly are thinking about, you know, given those top 10 and those declining 10, how does that basically create or impact a talent pipeline between the two and kind of thinking about that connection?

And so I just want to call that out, because I don't think I've ever heard anybody articulate it in that way but I think that that could potentially be really powerful, particularly if you're focused in the way that you mentioned. And I think come to some of the themes we've talked about both within this podcast and also in our research, I think it's a much more humanistic approach than, you know, so many of the others, which are like, okay, well, you know, these 10 types jobs are going to go away and sorry guys.

Matthew Daniel:
I have a piece I'm working on for CLO next month, and what I have said is that, like the theme of the piece, the secret to talent mobility is humanity, not machinery. And I think it's wraparound support and people who can advocate for you, you are more likely to get more talent mobility through that than you are through your HCMS recommendation, that is the next skill that you need for now. There will be a time where it won't be that way, but ultimately right now, like use humanity to get you there and that's going to serve you well for the next couple of years.

Dani Johnson:
Couple of themes I've heard from you, Matthew and one is this, and it’s a really important problem to solve. We have to solve it. The second thing I heard from you was it can't be solved entirely with tech right now—it can’t, we have to leverage our humanness and all that comes along with that, including our ability to think reasonably and deeply about this, rather than just relying on technology. And then the third thing that I think I've heard is stories, strangely, like from the very beginning through the end of this conversation, I've been hearing stories. You can't look at a resume and decide if that person is worthy of a job; you’ve got to get into the stories, you can't just look at the data and decide, do you have the skills you need? You've got to get into the stories.

Every time I talk to you, I think to myself, man, this is a big mess and that the other thing that I think is, but I'm really hopeful that we'll get there. And that's one of the reasons that I've always really liked our conversations is because even though we're talking about really hard things and we're not there yet, you leave me hopeful for the future of solving this problem. So thank you so much for being with us today; it was fantastic, and we'll make sure that the articles that you've written about this topic are available on our website so that people can continue to study.

Matthew Daniel:
Can I leave with this? I want to leave with this. I said the reason I do this is because I want to make people better, and here's what I believe: I believe that if you are in the field of learning and talent development, or overall human resources, you didn't get into the field generally because you thought to yourself, Oh my God, I love HCMs, or you thought I can't wait to write the next policy to cover one of the big problems and exposures we have in our company. And you didn't think, man, I love laying people off, right? All those things that are a part of our job, as LMS is and SCORM and content integration, those are just the things. If you were in a room with me, it would be like guttural, like standing on a chair, yelling, is to remind this field of why we got in this: we got in this because we saw that people can be better, and do better, and that if we pay attention to people and we make investments in them it yields business results, but it also has generational impacts.

So as people out there are thinking about skills—what skills do we need? What skills should we have? How do we solve this?—from deep down in the deepest of my gut, I am saying, do not forget why you decided to do this. Stay focused on the impact that we have. Do good work. Solve the problems, but ultimately do not lose sight of our frontline, of our non-exempt employees of the talent and potential we have in our organizations, and let's go change the world. Let's make it better. Let's do the work, figure it out, and leave the world better when it's all said and done then than where it is today.

Dani Johnson:
That was beautiful. Matthew, thank you so much for your time and your passion. It's been a great conversation.

Matthew Daniel:
Thanks guys.

Chris Pirie:
We are very grateful to Workday for their exclusive sponsorship of this first season of the RedThread Research podcast. Today, the world is changing faster than ever, and you can meet those changing needs with Workday; it’s one agile system that enables you to grow and re-skill your workforce. Workday is a financial, HR and planning system for a changing world.

Workday will also host an exclusive live webinar towards the end of the season where you can meet the team Dani, Stacia and myself, and join in a conversation about the future of skills and skills management. You can find out more information and access exclusive content at www.workday.com/skills.

 

Written by

Stacia Garr Redthread Research
Stacia Garr
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst

Stacia is a Co-founder and Principal Analyst for RedThread Research and focuses on employee engagement/experience, leadership, DE&I, people analytics, and HR technology. A frequent speaker and writer, her work has been featured in Fortune, Forbes, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal as well as in numerous HR trade publications. She has been listed as a Top 100 influencer in HR Technology and in D&I. Stacia has an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree from the London School of Economics.

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