OECD report on workforce skills – and the need to change the workplace

Earlier this year, OECD put out a report on workforce skills (Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Lives: A Strategic Approach to Skills Policies) that contains a broad analysis of the skills gap and other training and labor force issues. It also contains a wide range of policy recommendations. But from my perspective, there is one item tucked away in the report that deserves more attention: the need to change the workplace to utilize higher level skills.
When we discuss the skills issue, much of our focus is on the individual and the need for the individual to upgrade their skills. Most of the governmental programs, such as those discussed in the OECD report, are geared this way. Yet, if the organization is not capable of utilizing those skills, the training and educational programs are for naught. As the OECD report points out, some countries are facing a skills surplus, where there are not enough high skilled jobs to employee high skilled college graduates. In other countries, such as the United States, we might be suffering from an inability to match the general skills of a worker to the very narrowly defined skill needs of the company (the (“Purple Squirrel” problem — see earlier posting).
We need a broader focus on workplace design to utilize the available skills in the most productive manner. In part, this means focusing on the creation of high performance work organizations (see earlier postings). In an article I co-authored a number of years ago, “Time to Get Serious About Workplace Change”, I argued that:

The federal government obviously cannot jump-start the transformation [to high performance work organizations] by legislative or regulatory fiat. But it can serve as a catalyst and enabler. Government policy can help foster economic, political, and social environments that favor and speed the adoption of high-performance practices and reduce the risks and costs of implementation. The government can support the development and diffusion of tools, technologies, technical assistance, and standards that make it possible for companies to move toward high-performance work systems, and it can help expand the educational and training resources required.

Starting point of such a government policy is to recognize that the workforce skills issue is not solely one of raising the skill levels of individuals. It is as much an issue of the organizational utilization of those skills. The dual focus of workforce and workplace is needed if we are to have a coherent skills policy for the I-Cubed Economy.

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