Later this week I’ll be stuffing a turkey (and myself) and giving thanks--thanks for family and friends, of course, but also for something my mind’s been mulling over for the past few weeks: human engagement, and not the betrothal kind. I’m just talking about direct, concise, clear engagement with one another. Earnest, curious communication would be another phrase for it.
The Sunday New York Times ran an expose on how youth engage with each other. The undertone was plain. We’re all worried about the next generation’s attention span. Electronic doodads distract them continually, and over time some of them have become multitasking extraordinaires, which worries us. They’re good at doing a mediocre job of a lot of tasks at once, and mediocrity doesn’t bode well for our future. Can these kids concentrate, learn, ask questions, and become engaged, productive workers who can compete in a global economy? Every generation seems to go through this. TV was supposed to make us all zombie-like nitwits. So was radio. The digital age has made things a bit different this time, but it doesn’t keep me up at night.
Still, mass media has devoted column-inches to subjects of this ilk in part because it relates to the big unknown in America’s future. A few weeks ago I quoted a recent Bloomberg Businessweek article, which referred to Narayana Kocherlakota, president of the Minneapolis Fed. He estimates that this country’s current job opening rate is 2.3 percent. That’s a lot of jobs, and filling all of them would reduce the country’s unemployment rate significantly.
How can so many jobs be available? Why are so many unemployed? Everyone talks about the skills gap, and it’s certainly a real problem. With state governments strapped for cash, technical schools can’t fill every company’s need, and they certainly can’t afford to give everyone a lot of time on half-million-dollar machines. To fill the need, one machining company in Boston went so far as to launch its own technical school.
Teaching the skill is so important these days, but according to one shop manager I spoke with recently, so is measuring one’s character. Gary Foreman, vice president of C.O.W. Industries, a contract fabricator in Columbus, Ohio, told me he doesn’t hire for experience; the shop can give an employee plenty of it. What it can’t do is change an employee’s character.
The shop offers comprehensive training beyond the basic function of specific machines. A classroom near the front office shows the work of past classes covering various topics, from total quality management to the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) methodology.
Foreman outsources the hiring function to a firm that specializes in behavioral analysis and testing. The company identifies job candidates who may or may not have experience, but are eager to learn. In other words, they’re earnest, engaged, and curious. The thinking is that without these attributes, the most experienced person in the world won’t add that much value to a firm.
A new employee, regardless of experience, needs to have good character, become engaged in process improvement, and be ready and willing to learn. Company managers can offer the most sophisticated training programs in the world, but the investment isn’t worth beans if those new employees aren’t engaged in the process.