Uniting People and Technology to Close the Skills Gap

"Go get an education and better your life,” is advice that has stood the test of time -- at least for those apt to learn through books and afforded the opportunity to do so. Education has been key to socioeconomic mobility for centuries, but academic aptitude is not as tightly correlated with intelligence or potential as we might feel. The nuance is important because, through the world, there’s a looming skills shortage and a slowing down of socioeconomic mobility.

The US Department of Education estimated 36 million Americans are low-skilled meaning they do not possess the basic literacy or numeracy skill needed to be competitive in a modern economy. “The wealth gap between America’s richest and poorer families more than doubled from 1989 to 2016,” said the Pew Research Center. “US social mobility has either remained unchanged or decreased since the 1970s,” according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Those are the human costs. The business costs include millions of unfilled positions through 2028 which hinders a company’s ability to meet customer demand. A large Baby Boomer exodus is underway and, according to The Cornerstone, 18 percent of skilled trades people will have retired by the end of 2021 and 41 percent by 2032. As HR leaders, we have an opportunity to solve a business problem and an improve the lives of people – isn’t that cool?

The combination of human expertise and people-centric technology holds the promise of solving the great skills gap and accelerating socio-economic mobility. In this exclusive article for Manage HR Magazine, I will share practical examples of how to unite people and technology to achieve real impact for your shareholders, your workforce, and your community.

Building People Capabilities

An urgent challenge is capturing the invaluable know-how of experts before losing them to retirement or another company, and then transferring the knowledge in a manner that can be repeated at a large scale. The classic apprenticeship and on-the-job training models whereby an inexperienced colleague looks over the shoulder of an experienced colleague works is not scalable. At Stanley Black and Decker, we wanted something more scalable so looked to technology for help.

The best idea turned out to be quite simple and shockingly effective. We adopted an artificial intelligence (AI) based technology to help us record experienced workers as they perform job-related tasks, troubleshoot common issues, and go through safety protocols. The work motion is recorded on video, automatically edited into bite-sized segments, tagged for easy searching later, and then stored in a content library for everyone at our company to use. The AI engine creates subtitles from spoken speech and translates it into XX languages. All of this is accessible on a big screen or on a phone. The technology does the hard work, the learner enjoys the on-demand flexibility, and we don’t need to hire a lot of trainers or create hours of classroom time.
Although we are using advance technology, there’s some uniquely human aspect to this idea. For instance, the experienced worker narrates contemporaneously during the recording in a manner of speaking that is more relatable to their colleagues. The trainer (experienced peer) is meeting the learners where they are. We have heard our share of jokes, and gripes, and enthusiasm – all in the right natural places. Another example, we have noticed our workforce more at ease with this method of learning. Supervisors and workers alike found this approach better than a 50- page manual or someone lecturing in a classroom. For those who prefer learning by reading automated transcripts provides that opportunity as well. The classic look over the shoulder model of learning still has its utility, and now with videos provides more standardized training and allows a learner to rewind, fast-forward, and come back to it later.

We are finding this relevant on our factory floors as well as with our millennial and Gen Zers who grew up with YouTube. For example, peer-to-peer video-based learning can be rolled out to service employees so they can record how they do something well and share it with all their peers. With AI-based video technology we can activate the energy and industriousness of our 53-thousand employees – effectively democratizing learning at work. The key here is to let the informal peer-to-peer network happen – supervisors and HR should watch, nudge here and there, but mostly get out of the way.

Building Organization Resilience

“In highly volatile and uncertain times, organizations need to develop a resilience capacity to cope effectively with unexpected events, bounce back from crises, and even foster future success,” wrote Dr. Stephanie Duchek, Visiting Professor at Brandenburgische Technische Universität. Unifying people and technology in a synergistic way is a big part of our playbook for organization resilience. For example, the homegrown content library preserves the kind of informal knowledge that could walk out the door. In the old model of training, it’s too time consuming and costly to train a lot more people than you need to do a given function. With on-demand technology, our workforce can choose what they are interested in learning and give it a shot without the need for tuition, approvals, or fear of publicly failing. In a short amount of time you might find more people able to perform a given function than you expected. That’s a building block of resilience! Suddenly, a flywheel starts to spin: Improved Skills > More Career Mobility > Higher Engagement > Improved Employee Retention > Increased Productivity. Eventually, the flywheel reaches happier customers.

Another example of building org resilience is how we are hiring. Like many other companies we have found it difficult to find qualified talent. Instead of competing on a supply-and-demand curve that would make any HR leader’s playbook look like wishful thinking, we are redefining the curve. With the AI-based learning technology just explained, we can consider people who are not 100% qualified but have the work ethic, attitude and aptitude to do the job. That opens the supply curve tremendously.

We explored the best way to find talent including the obvious - LinkedIn, billboards, recruiting partners, and advertising. We are now using AI-based technologies to make our recruiting efforts more efficient. Our experience is leading us more and more towards AI-based platforms with specialty niches to find, connect with, and reach out to qualified candidates where they hang out. Today, the trend in broader society is to meet people where they are – and that holds true for recruiting.

HR Can Be Innovative

Thriving in today’s marketplace requires unifying technology with human potential. Your HR function does not need an army of machine learning experts or a multi-million-dollar investment to innovate. There are 1.35 million tech startups creating lots of innovation. Our role in HR is to connect the dots and curate the right technology that works. With an open mind and a small investment, we are changing the way we find talent and develop talent at Stanley Black and Decker. It isn’t people or technology that will carry the day but a thoughtful combination of the two.