Training Gen Y for Today’s Open Jobs: Pros and Cons

Recommendations on how to train workers for the jobs of today and the jobs of tomorrow differ hugely. Is focusing on current skills gaps short-sighted?

Starting their careers in a recession, Gen Y has had their book learning supplemented by real-world lessons in economic uncertainty and job instability. Graduating from this school of hard knocks, many of them want to know what skills will offer the best chance of steady future employment.

So does the government. Writing in the Wall Street Journal recently, two CEOs serving on The President’s Jobs and Competitiveness Council, Jeffrey Immelt (GE) and Ken Chenault (American Express), gave an update on the administration’s efforts to tackle unemployment. They’re focusing on skills and training too — here’s what they suggest:

Train workers for today’s open jobs. There are more than two million open jobs in the U.S., in part because employers can’t find workers with the advanced manufacturing skills they need. The private sector must quickly form partnerships with community colleges, vocational schools and others to match career training with real-world hiring needs.

This is a popular suggestion. (Though not everyone agrees, former labor secretary Richard Reich says the idea is “puff”.) The Atlantic came to a similar conclusion in a recent article on job creation, calling on America to “revamp our student aid and college investments policies to encourage community colleges to provide high quality, low-cost education.”

But What About the Jobs of Tomorrow?

Both anxious students and economic experts are focused on training and skills, but notice the differences between them. The president’s council, understandably, wants to train workers  quickly “for today’s open jobs.” Gen Y needs to keep working for decades and wants the skills to compete for the jobs of tomorrow.

Of course, no one knows what jobs will be available in the future. Who could have predicted job titles like ‘social media expert’ or ‘iPhone apps developer’ ten years ago? But that doesn’t mean no one is thinking about how to train for them. The executive director of a forecasting organization called “The Future of Work,” James Ware, recently spoke at an IEDC conference on growing talent for the industries not of today, but of tomorrow. Did he too focus on vocational training and specific skills like those needed for advanced manufacturing? Not at all. Ware’s focus was less on tangible, work-ready skills and more on core abilities like:

– Lifelong learning
– Information search
– Problem-solving
– Curiosity
– Scientific method
– Tolerating ambiguity
– Influencing without authority

A Short-Sighted Investment?

The difference between those focused on current job skills and Ware, who is looking further ahead, is vast. The politicians aim to fill specific skills gaps with quick, cheap training options. Ware, imagining a future where work is set to be more conceptual, dynamic and diverse, stresses the ability to acquire, evaluate and manipulate information in a changing world as the best guarantee of a gig.

Narrow vocational training might make sense for an unemployed 50-year-old, but does it make sense when it comes to Gen Y? Is putting our limited resources into training for the skills of today simply buying band-aids when we need to invest in the more radical surgery of improving our schools to arm kids with the mental abilities demanded by the information economy? When the lightning-fast economy shifts again, will those with specific vocational skills but not the deep cognitive skills needed to adapt simply be in trouble again?

(Image courtesy of Flickr user krupp, CC 2.0)

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London-based blogger Jessica Stillman covers generational issues and trends in the workforce for BNET.com.