HR thought leaders convene to build new paths to prosperity.
By the Editors
While Americans remain glum about the future of our economy, a renewed sense of possibility emerged at the HRO Today Forum (April 30 to May 2 in Washington, D.C.). A humming global economy with good jobs at good pay that unleashes the potential of talented people everywhere won’t be built by HR alone, but it can’t be built without HR. And that truth was evident everywhere throughout the Forum.
From its opening address by Forum Chairman Richard Crespin to its closing keynote by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD), the HR executives in attendance heard and answered the call to lead.
The Forum swung into full gear with a panel moderated by Prudential’s Senior Vice President for HR, Sharon Taylor, on “Where do jobs come from?” Panelists John Haltiwanger from the University of Maryland, Brink Lindsey of the Kauffman Foundation, and Scott Case of StartUp America enthralled the audience with a detailed but easily understandable exposition on the birds and the bees of labor flows and job creation. Professor Haltiwanger’s explanation that net-new jobs are mainly created by start-ups surprised some, and Lindsey’s analysis of the slowing rate of start-up creation in America throughout the Great Recession created a call-to-action that HR directors were ready to answer. Case explained how companies can make their hiring and procurement policies “start-up friendly” and how even really large companies can play a role in shepherding start-ups through their awkward years. That described at least one path to create thriving micro-economies, such as the one in Silicon Valley that supports ongoing innovation at companies of all sizes.
Arguments and Lightning Bolts
Things turned a bit contentious when the contenders took the stage for the Forum’s Oxford-style debate on “Is outsourcing good for America?” Moderated by ABC Nightline’s Co-Anchor Terry Moran, the debate pitted the AFL-CIO’s Thea Lee and the World Policy Journal’s David Andelman against the Cato Institute’s Dan Ikenson and the National Association of Foreign Trade Zones’ Dan Griswold. While the audience ultimately declared the “pro-outsourcing” team of Griswold and Ikenson the winners, the verdict was close, and the arguments were well reasoned. The “anti-outsourcing” team of Andelman and Lee raised valid concerns that offshoring had built up the middle classes of India, China, and other developing nations at the expense of the American middle class, while Griswold-Ikenson pointed to the lower cost of living that offshoring has generated for that same American middle class.
The Forum returned to an uplifting note with its Big Idea Lightning Round. Five presenters quick-pitched, in 10 minutes or less, their single best idea to “change the face of HR.” Two audience favorites: Dan Enthoven on data-driven hiring practices and Paul Herman of HIP Investor on putting people on the balance sheet.
Enthoven showed how the same data mining techniques deployed by companies such as Target to predict the likelihood of future purchasing behavior can be used to better predict performance (Choice excerpt: Target can “diagnose” an impending pregnancy based on purchasing patterns and then push relevant offers as the pregnancy progresses.) While many companies use credit checks in employment screening, even the credit agencies themselves say there’s no correlation with a future predilection to commit fraud. Better screening questions would save time and money and improve on-the-job performance.
Paul Herman showed that while Western companies say people are their most valuable asset, they actually list that “asset” as an expense or liability in their financial statements. Now there’s a growing trend—led by Indian companies—to value people as true assets and reflect them as such. Herman went on to show that when companies do accurately value their people-assets, that has a positive impact on stock performance and increases shareholder value.
The Forum also included multiple track sessions on “Building a More Competitive Workforce,” “Running HR Like a Business,” and “Innovation and Competitive Advantage.” Key highlights included several experienced panels, case studies, and in-depth explorations of some of the emerging trends in strategic HR management and operations. One experienced panel of contingent workforce managers included Margie Durham, head of global HR for Dell Service; Patty LaValle-Jones, who leads supply chain indirect procurement at Sara Lee; and Janiene Madison, who manages indirect sourcing for Land O’Lakes. The session, moderated by Janice Weiner, executive director of business solutions for Staff Management, shared secrets for getting to a faster return on investment using strategies such as managed service provider (MSP) solutions.
Another highlight: “Can this marriage be saved?” In this highly interactive session some HRO veterans shared near-death experiences, turnarounds, and success stories. Using a series of composite case studies—a “ripped from the headlines” set of examples with the underlying facts, names, and organizations changed to protect the innocent—our own Elliot Clark, CEO of SharedXpertise, led the discussion. He was joined by Roger Clements from Advantage xPO, Ernie Lareau who formerly worked for DuPont, Trey Campbell of NorthgateArinso, Valerie Egan from Linde, and the audience, who collaborated to dissect the issues and uncover hidden wisdom that all the participants could take to their next troubled vendor relationship.
The Workforce Congress
Another key feature of this year’s Forum was its “Workforce Congress.” The Congress gathered senior HR executives along with government, NGO, and academic leaders to focus on two tough issues facing our society: “Training for Upward Mobility” and “Reintegrating Veterans into the Workforce.”
The “Training for Upward Mobility” discussion produced a series of recommendations to better prepare workers to compete in a global economy. Raytheon Professional Services President David Letts kicked off the discussion with a briefing on a public-private partnership that Raytheon formed in Germany to prepare workers with specific trades and skills. Suzanne Immerman, head of public-private partnerships for the Education Department, also briefed the delegates on the department’s approach to forging and maintaining its relationships with the private sector.
The recommendations that emerged looked at how employers, educational institutions, and governments could better work together. One of the underlying issues is that educational institutions—especially post-secondary education and four-year degree programs—do not have the explicit goal of training for employment. Many of these programs pursue education for its own merits, which might have been fine in an era when only a small minority of elites went to college but which fails to meet the needs of the modern American workforce. As public policy has evolved to drive more students into four-year degree programs, the usefulness of an abstract degree has declined dramatically.
Community colleges and “sub-four year degree programs” (read: technical and vocational schools) could play a role in filling this gap. But these institutions face additional barriers: a lack of transparency and a strong and growing bias against trades. As one HR leader put it in a separate interview, “When did it become more honorable to have a history degree and be a barista at minimum wage than to have an electrician’s license and earn $100k?” A self-defeating reality is that too many parents and students look down on trades and trade schools as unworthy of them.
Community colleges don’t do themselves any favors by operating under a veil of secrecy that doesn’t allow students and funders (e.g., government and scholarship grantors) to evaluate the effectiveness of their programs and weed out the bad actors that have given for-profit schools a bad name. To paraphrase another HR executive during the Congress, “I sit on my local community college board, but as far as I can tell they just invite me in and give me a free dinner so they can check the box that they have an advisory board. . . . Never once have they asked me what kinds of programs would produce graduates that I would actually hire.”
The delegates called for a high-profile media campaign to turn around the common perception of the trades. Funded by the trade associations, unions, and major employers, the campaign would speak to parents, students, and future employers, highlighting the opportunities available to skilled trades professionals. Delegates also called upon community colleges’ major accrediting bodies to publish a scorecard on the performance of their graduates, possibly linked to the criteria in the recent report on “Skills for America’s Future.” Finally, delegates also recommended that accrediting bodies strengthen their requirement for advisory boards, giving those boards real input on curriculum.
Swords to Plowshares
The discussion on reintegrating veterans into the workforce produced a similarly charged dialog. Emily King, author of Field Tested: Recruiting, Managing, & Retaining Veterans, facilitated a discussion that was kicked off by Allied Barton’s Jerold Ramos, Erin Thede, director of the employer partnership of the Armed Forces, and Brian Nichols, who manages the Capitol Area’s Wounded Warrior Project.
The discussion highlighted the need for a “cross-reference guide” that would help employers better translate military occupational specialties into private sector job skills. It also pointed out the need to reach veterans before they actually separate from the military and provide them with a better “soft landing” and introduction into the private sector workforce. Finally, it showed the need for a better concerted effort not just to hire, but also to retain veterans. Missed expectations and communication breakdowns plague many veteran hiring programs, resulting in unnecessarily high turnover and low job satisfaction. These problems can be overcome, but it will take effort.
(The Workforce Congress didn’t end at the Forum. It merely recessed over the summer and will resume again at the COMMIT!Forum in October in New York. Stay tuned for more details at www.commitforum.com.)
The Forum concluded with high-energy keynotes from Deloitte’s CEO-Emeritus Jim Quigley and Senator Daschle. Quigley, author of As One, a guide to getting large groups of people to follow you, inspired the audience with his vision of comprehensive leadership. He shared his model for articulating an uplifting vision, translating it into discrete plans that managers and workers can execute, and tying it together with a performance management system that tracks progress, highlights needs for improvement, and rewards success.
Senator Daschle painted his own vision for the country and how HR leaders can join with him to create it. He did an artful job of articulating the Democratic party’s and his own policy positions on a range of issues, including healthcare reform, taxes, responding to the Occupy movement, and more. He also “handicapped” the upcoming elections, sharing his prediction that President Obama’s reelection largely hinges on the state of the economy come late October. In his analysis, the Republicans’ inability so far to articulate a viable alternative means that the president’s fate will be determined by macroeconomic forces and not by his opponent’s campaign.
HRO Today Forum delegates left with a big set of to-dos. From beginning to end, the Forum laid out a series of policy issues through which they have a substantive role to play in shaping the future of their organizations and our society. The path to prosperity will certainly pass through HR, and with the help of the delegates that gathered at the Forum, it has already started to be built.