Learn by doing — and closing the skills gap

“The things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”

I wish, dear readers, I could take credit for saying that — and for saying it that well. Alas, it took Aristotle to do that. So let’s just settle for applying a lesson learned from this.

I also wish more employers would not only get it but start to live by it.

In 1911, Frederick Taylor published a pioneering work: “The Principles of Scientific Management.” The repetitive, mundane nature of most jobs, he said, did not require workers to do something we consider critically important today: think.

As tasks were broken down into basic components, behaviors were standardized, and flexibility and decision-making were eliminated, employees more closely resembled machines than human beings. This, of course, made personnel management an easy thing.

And that made sense, as more than 80 percent of the labor force needed no more skills than what they were taught to do and to repeat. Bluntly, your body was required at work; your mind was not. To be employable, you needed to show up, do the one thing you were hired to do and keep doing it. Period.

Jump ahead 100 years plus a few, and it’s another story altogether. Employability should depend on continually learning and developing new skills, creatively solving problems and showing an interest in and a capacity to learn things outside your job’s realm. You’re as likely to be hired for what you’re capable of learning as you are for what you already know.

Well, almost. It’s certainly the case with progressive, creative companies, but here’s the rub. Almost every company views itself as progressive and creative. Most of them even have that listed as one of their core values and/or practices. But when it comes to proving that, all bets are off. Most are not even close.

As Albert Einstein playfully observed, “In theory, theory and practice are the same; in practice, they are not.” Saying something and doing it are not the same.

So that brings us to today’s theme. If, in theory, your employability depends on your ability to think and learn, you’d figure that employers would be a little more willing to hire you even if you don’t have all the skills they need. You’d think they’d be willing to share the learning curve with you — just a little — because you show an ability to learn and grow. Right?

But overwhelmingly, employers are demonstrating the opposite. Why, if you think about it, are there more than 6.1 million open jobs (jobs that employers would fill immediately if they found a candidate with all the requisite skills) when there are only 6.8 million unemployed?

Those two numbers have never, as long as the Bureau of Labor Statistics has been measuring them, been so close. It’s more than ridiculous.

So if employers are saying one thing while doing another, what does that tell you? First, employers are putting the burden on you to close the skills gap. It’s your job, in their eyes, to bring everything to the table; they’re not moving the table.

While that’s stubborn and short-sighted, and will put some companies behind the eight ball if they keep it up too long, it does force you to engage in that self-directed learning and professional development that you’ve known all along is the right thing to do. OK, fine. Do it.

Second, you want to demonstrate — in your resume, LinkedIn profile and interviews — that your “learnability” factor is high: off-the-charts high, hopefully. Because, one by one, employers are starting to figure out that their stubbornness is costing them, and that their insistence on hiring already proven skill sets will go just so far — until the well runs dry and until they find themselves at a different well, but too late because it, too, has already run dry.

The skills gap is well-recognized, and no matter what an employer’s position, continuing education is always a good thing. In 1970, Alvin Toffler wrote “Future Shock,” a book so far ahead of its time that it still is.

In it, he said, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” Spot on! Still is.

So it comes down to two things. While you want to be recognized as someone who can learn by doing, you still need to show up with all the new skill sets you can piece together.

Career coach and corporate adviser Eli Amdur has been authoring his weekly “Career Coach” column since 2003 and is the author of his acclaimed career advice book, “It’s Not So Far From Here to There: The thinking person’s guide to well-managed career.” Adjunct professor of two graduate-level leadership courses at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, he also is active on the speaker circuit, delivering presentations on today’s critical employment and leadership issues. Visit his website at www.amdurcoaching.com.

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