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5 Reasons Why Managers Need to Think Hard About the Skills Gap

July 24, 2017, 11:39 PM UTC

Technology is changing everything faster than any of us could have imagined. Our jobs are just the tip of the iceberg.

How are we, the workers, supposed to stay on top of things?

How should managers think about keeping their employees skilled at what matters when “what matters” is constantly changing?

At Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, technology industry executives—Koru CEO Kristen Hamilton, MediaLink CEO Michael Kassan, General Assembly CEO Jake Schwartz, JetBlue Technology Ventures president Bonny Simi, and former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer—gathered to discuss just that. Here’s what they said.

1. Because College Isn’t For Everyone, but Learning Is

There are 20,000 employees at JetBlue, Sims said, and 18,000 of them are hourly workers, from flight attendants to gate agents. Many of them have only a high school degree. They don’t want (or need) to go to college. Still, they want a career trajectory. “How do you keep them engaged over the course of a career when they’re making $20 an hour?” Sims asked.

If you’re JetBlue, you partner to offer college courses through the company. The airline has 750 students in that program. “We went from a turnover in the call center to 50% for this cohort down to almost nothing,” Sims said. “The engagement has gone through the roof.” No degree program necessary.

2. Because Skills Are Really a Talent Acquisition Issue

“A lot of our work has been with really large companies who frankly struggle with talent acquisition,” said General Assembly’s Schwartz. His company works to build internal academies for other companies and reskill their workers. Part of the challenge is the framing of the issue, he said. “This is a shift from learning being an L&D thing,” Schwartz said, using the acronym for learning and development, “which has tragically become sort of a procurement center with limited resources, to a talent acquisition problem.”

The problem? L&D efforts don’t get the kind of resources that talent efforts do, he said, which means skills retraining is at risk of underinvestment.

3. Because Companies Have the Technology to Measure It

“Corporations spend more on human capital than any other expense item,” Hamilton said. So why aren’t they as careful and quantitative—read: data analytics—with it as they are with everything else in the company? “If you bring in the right talent that’s the right performance fit, that’s a good start.”

(A fellow in the room concurred: “We have so much data on our employees. So much opportunity. Why go externally for talent when we have the same talent internally, if not better?”)

But you need to measure more than cognitive ability, Hamilton said. Things like soft skills. “You can hire a great engineer to write code,” Hamilton said, “but if they don’t have good judgment or are a good culture fit, that’s a problem.” The silver lining? Some soft skills can be learned.

Besides, “it’s about contextual learning,” she said. People learn when they have a problem to solve. So create a lifelong learning organization. “I think that’s where we do need to get,” Hamilton said. “It needs to not be a sideline, separate event.”

Mayer concurred. When she was making change at Yahoo, training on the job was key, she said. “We needed everyone on the team to really understand mobile,” she said. When she was at Google, the company would often hire Stanford University professors straight out of academia. “You go from full-time student to nothing,” Mayer said. “That’s something a lot of people don’t want. They want to continue learning.”

4. Because It’s Good for Business

“You get what you pay for,” Schwartz said. You can’t fit staff education into a tiny budget. “I see as part of my role helping HR reframe their jobs”—and in doing so, reframe their mind around the notion that spending $30,000 to $50,000 per person for education is actually cheap in the long run. The catch? You need learning engagement, and that requires the involvement of senior leadership and meaningful personal engagement. The result, Schwartz said, “gives you, frankly, a competitive advantage.”

Kassan agreed. “We’ve tried to take it into the boardroom,” he said. “When you look at the board makeup, the percentage of people with markedly different, transformational thinking is very small.” So if you’re facing digital transformation and skills retraining, consider making unusual additions to your board, such as a CMO, he said. Only then will you approach what former Microsoft COO Michael Turner calls “performing while transforming,” Kassan said.

5. Because It’s Good for America

Look at skills training as a matter of turnover and engagement, Sims said. There are societal implications to simply laying people off; it’s destabilizing.

“We need to become good corporate citizens,” Sims said, “and help transform America.”