Students at Oakwood University don't get degrees. They don't attend class on a pretty, tree-filled campus or spend their nights cramming at the library for midterms. Students at OU are employees at Oakwood Worldwide, a Los Angeles-based corporate relocation services company that provides furnished apartments for organizations that need extended stay housing for their employees. Oakwood has 40 offices across the U.S. and 3,000 employees worldwide.
OU is part of Oakwood's employee training and development program, which has evolved since its inception 14 years ago. The team overseeing OU has grown to include six staff members. The program includes classroom and online courses, webinars and job-shadowing opportunities. Subjects covered in the curriculum range from Microsoft system applications to leadership skills.
"When I think about how we sell a job to a prospective employee, what we do in the way of training and development is important to people," says Ana Castellanos, vice president of human resources for Oakwood Worldwide.
When a new recruit joins Oakwood, they're placed in a comprehensive onboarding program that includes position-specific training and lasts three to four months. Training and development time is built right into employees' schedules and they receive a checklist of classes along with a guide as to when they should take them over the course of their career.
Seeing the job in action
And for managers, training sometimes includes job shadowing, which has been particularly effective, says Castellanos, who recently spoke with a new manager in Philadelphia who'd just returned from a week in Houston where he'd shadowed a more experienced manager in the same role.
"He told me how much he got out of it and how much he'd learned about how the office should run," she says. "It usually makes sense for leaders to go to another office where they can see it live and in action. That's really successful in a lot of our jobs."
Last year, Oakwood implemented a formalized career development program. "Let's say I'm an entry-level guest service rep and the next level is a reservation position where I have an opportunity to earn commissions and increase my income," Castellanos explains. "We can show you what sort of courses you need to take at OU online, what job shadow assignments might be good, what classroom training might be available to build on your next job."
According to the 2012 Towers Watson Global Workforce Study, learning and development opportunities are one of the top reasons employees join a company. Learning and development ranked No. 5 on the list of top drivers that attract employees to an organization. And in terms of retention, career advancement opportunities ranked No. 2.
"I do think development, when thought of as a specific benefit, can be pretty powerful," says Ravin Jesuthasan, global head of talent with Towers Watson. "What [employees] want is some certainty that even if they work for you and even if they get paid competitively, they are continuing to develop skills that will make them highly marketable. Recognizing that can be a powerful proposition in the marketplace that differentiates you from your competitors."
The gap that exists between the jobs an organization has to fill and the knowledge skills and abilities of current and potential workers is a real concern for many employers, particularly in the science, technology and engineering fields. Paying for such expertise to come to the U.S. from countries such as India and China - where supply of such talent may over exceed the demand - often isn't a viable long-term solution for many companies. The recession, meanwhile, has left employee training and development budgets slashed, if not eliminated altogether.
"There's no real uptick in job creation so employers continue to be very cautious about any discretionary expense," says Jesuthasan.
In addition, employers across multiple industries are competing for the same talent. Jesuthasan had a recent discussion with an electric utility, in which an HR manager said the software engineering skills the utility needs to manage its smart grid are the same skills a technology company would need.
"You're seeing the convergence of some of these engineering skills, particularly electrical engineering, where those skills are converting across multiple industries," he says.
Nevertheless, the employers Diana O'Brien, managing principal with Deloitte University and principal with Deloitte Consulting, works with are "absolutely refocused on training and development as a significant part of what they want to start to bring back. The problem is it's hard to stop and start those [programs]."
She believes employers who haven't maintained training and development programs, however modest, throughout the recession may start to see significant exits from high-potential employees as the economy continues to recover.
When 'good enough' suffices
Both O'Brien and Jesuthasan recommend employers take inventory of their talent needs to keep pace with technology and demographic shifts. Sometimes, talent that's good enough is all you need.
"Ask the question of where are the jobs that having talent good enough suffices versus the ones where it really does make a difference to have great talent," Jesuthasan says. "I suspect that if you ask it that way there will be many positions where 'good enough' suffices."
Where specific skill sets are hard to come by, O'Brien recommends that organizations "hire for potential and for character and then grow that specific skill, technical or industry requirement, or even professional skills."
Jesuthasan believes potential employees must "have the basic technical skills for the role, but they've got to be able to apply those skills to your unique business model. Finding talent that is adaptable and able to acquire those skills on a real-time basis is the really big challenge."
And yet, he also sees employers less willing to invest in employees who can't hit the ground running as soon as they join a company. "Companies' tolerance for hiring someone who might be a work in progress ... is greatly diminished," he says.
As well, employers are concerned that if they invest heavily in training and development in this economy, they're just training their workers for another employer's benefit. But this is short-term thinking, according to O'Brien.
"Our view is that it's critical you create a culture that builds on capabilities and helps professionals learn and adapt," she says. "If they stay with us, terrific. They're better able to solve our clients' conflicts or problems. But even if they leave, they go out and better serve the market and may potentially come back to us as a client. We don't see there's any risk in making big investments but I know I've talked to clients about some tentativeness in wanting to do it."
Jesuthasan says it's imperative for companies to be upfront with employees about "what the deal is within the organization." Employees will join the organization if they see favorable developmental opportunities, he says.
Castellanos believes every day presents training opportunities and managers should be explicit that even one-on-one conversations should sometimes be viewed as training. "I might sit down with someone and say 'this is training' and it might be something as simple as walking them through a new task or part of their job. I remind people 'this is training time,'" she says.
TOP 5 ATTRACTION AND RETENTION DRIVERS
What attracts employees to an organization:
1. Base pay/salary
2. Job security
3. Career advancement opportunities
4. Convenient work location
5. Learning and development opportunities
What retains them:
1. Base pay/salary
2. Career advancement opportunities
3. Relationship with supervisor/manager
4. Trust/confidence in senior leadership
5. Manage/limit work-related stress
Source: 2012 Towers Watson Global Workforce Study
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