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Anyone who cares about the wealth and opportunity divide in this country has to be frustrated with the range of our policy options to fix the problem. For as long as we have had dying industries, we have had promises that workers in those industries could be retrained to do new work. But these promises have proven to be empty; in fact, most of the policy prescriptions for our income and skills gaps – more job training programs; lower taxes and regulations; more education reform; more welfare programs – have failed.
Fact is, for every inspiring story of former coal miners who taught themselves to code or inner-city kids who founded their own tech businesses, there are countless more examples of Americans falling further behind. The statistics don’t lie. If you’re born into a poor family, you’re far more likely to stay poor the rest of your life than at any point in American history.
I wonder whether our search for solutions has been too limited. There is, in fact, a powerful example of a massive and successful organization taking a diverse population and equipping them with the skills they need to thrive in today’s economy: the military.
The men and women who enlist in the armed forces of the United States are not, predominantly, children of the wealthy elite. They didn’t go to fancy prep schools with robotics labs and coding clubs. More often, they come from families with a strong heritage of military service, or from a humble background where money was scarce, and college but a dream.
And yet, during their tenure in the military, many become some of the most disciplined and technologically proficient employees in the American workforce. That raises an intriguing question: Can we replicate the Pentagon’s success throughout the rest of the American economy? I believe it’s worth a try.
Let’s start with how the Pentagon sees training – as something that is essential to the mission, not something that is done as an afterthought. Anyone who wants to advance through the chain of command must acquire a wide range of skills. I recently asked a veteran how many jobs he’d learned to perform during the course of his career. His response was telling: “Well, I was in the Navy for 22 years and they re-trained me every couple of years, so I learned to be proficient at many different jobs.”
He served in surface warfare and in intelligence. He learned two languages. He did a stint at the Pentagon and been sent out to train new recruits. Yes, he had a single employer for more than two decades – just like a factory manager in an old-line industry. But he was more like someone bouncing around a sequence of projects in the “gig economy.”
Second, the military trains for the specific jobs their people will be required to perform. Too often, formal education is detached from real-life job requirements. That leads to a lot of disappointment and wasted education dollars. The military has eliminated this by bringing its training in-house. And while some larger companies sometimes do the same, not enough do. The right training programs are embedded in the job, not delivered far from it.
Third, the military established training and doctrines that are replicable and repeatable, allowing skills to be taught with regularity and predictable results. This means members of the military understand that the training they are undergoing will produce the desired results (so do their “employers” – the senior officers at their next post). There is also an assumption that the best, most effective learning takes place on-the-job. Training is often done within 3-6 months, and within each training regimen is a shared understanding of the fundamentals, the vocabulary of the job and the context of the job; the rest is learned in the field, with expectations set accordingly on all sides.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the military covers the costs of the training in its entirety, covering salaries and benefits even before a member of the armed services begins performing a new task. Private-sector business are often unwilling to take on these costs, but some do: AT&T realized that hiring and firing employees with each turn of the business cycle hurt productivity. So the company focused on internal mobility and training programs, with a focus on preparing employees for the jobs they were likely to have in five years.
Of course, the military model for job training won’t work for everyone. After all, the military doesn’t accept everyone, and reports increasing difficulty in recruiting minimally-qualified candidates. And the military branches often require mobility – soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen have to frequently relocate with new assignments. It’s clear many Americans are unwilling to move for new job opportunities. That would surely make the military model less likely to succeed. And while the military is sure to benefit from its investment in training its people, not all private employers can say the same thing; often, employers won’t invest in skills development because they’re afraid better trained employees will leave as soon as possible – taking the investment with them.
But that doesn’t mean we have nothing to gain from studying – and replicating – the military model as a basis for addressing our skills gaps. As Jen Greshman, retired Air Force Scientist and founder of Work for Humanity points out: “What I think the military demonstrates is that with the right skillset, mindset, and culture, almost anyone can do almost anything. None of those things are as difficult to develop as people imagine.”
May 9, 2019 at 04:58PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs