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Is Your Head of HR Thinking About Supply Chain Management?

Amidst what seems like 1,000 panel discussions in 1,000 Washington, DC conference rooms every month, a truly revolutionary idea for unlocking business growth emerged from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation just before Thanksgiving.
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Amidst what seems like 1,000 panel discussions in 1,000 Washington, DC conference rooms every month, a truly revolutionary idea for unlocking business growth emerged from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation just before Thanksgiving.

First, the backdrop: A growing chorus of workforce and education policymakers has been calling for closing the skills gap. A plethora of efforts have tried to better align education with the needs of employers. Much credit for this push belongs to current and recent Administrations along with major foundations such as the Bill & Melissa Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation (disclaimer: both foundations have supported the work of College for America at Southern New Hampshire University, where I work as Chief Workforce Strategist).

But too often the role of corporate leaders supporting new initiatives and sitting on advisory boards has been more visual than effective, with the design and management of these programs left to the public and nonprofit worlds. They sound great and look good, but lack the full industry engagement necessary to make them really work.

That is, until the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation's Talent Pipeline Management Initiative unveiling. Finally, business collectively is stepping up to address the need to better prepare and educate America's workforce. If implemented, the proposal could fundamentally change how business interacts with higher education.

Let's start with the initiative's basic premise:
Education and workforce systems in the United States are failing to keep pace with the changing needs of the economy, and employers are struggling to find skilled workers who can contribute to their companies' growth and success.

Their solution:
[A] new approach--Talent Pipeline Management--argues that employers can close the skills gap by applying lessons learned from supply chain management [to talent management].

The idea, brilliant in its core simplicity, is, that because businesses are so efficient in creating supply chains that get products from the raw inputs to the customer, they could bring that same supply chain planning and efficiency to talent management. But what that means is--hear me out, educators--higher education would then play the part of a "supplier," with the employer as an end customer.

I can see it now: Business leaders nodding in agreement and educators shaking fists in outrage. But stay with me just a little longer my education colleagues, because not only is this plan actionable, but it also does what we have been saying we want for a long time: for business to actually get involved in strengthening higher education.

The US Chamber of Commerce Foundation's framework is chock full of best practices and action items, but I would offer a few refinements to help take this from the drawing board to the classroom.

1) Prioritize talent management. The core of the proposal is that business needs to run its higher education talent pipeline like its supply chain. For Talent Pipeline Management to succeed, business leaders are going to need to internally elevate the importance of the talent "supply chain" to be on a par with their product supply chains. They also have to be willing to pay for talent and reward all of their best employees, from frontline workers on up the corporate ladder.

2) "Regional" may not be good enough. The US Chamber of Commerce Foundation's plan involves rolling out a series of regional Talent Pipeline Management initiatives. Given the growth of online programs, employers are not limited to regional providers and should have the option to go outside of the region to find the "preferred" education and workforce "providers" to best meet their needs. By opening up the marketplace, some very positive market pressure can be applied to boost the game of local and regional institutions.

3) This is about people. Supply chains deliver very specific products. But workers are not products. Talent Pipeline Management must be about developing a whole person with foundational skills, interpersonal skills, and business acumen--so that the employer and the employee achieve success and prosperity.

Like any new and radical idea this is going to be hard for some of my educational colleagues, and even some business leaders, to swallow. But we should be open to this proposal for one simple reason; both educators and businesses have an overlapping goal: to develop savvy, skilled people who can contribute to the success of an organization and society. Judging by the participation and engagement of the education, workforce development, and business leaders who came from all over the country to discuss the new plan yesterday, I think this one has legs.

The reality is, no matter how brilliant the policy reforms designed to make education and workforce development more responsive to the economy are, without a new way to truly get business engaged, the gains will be limited. The US Chamber of Commerce Foundation's Talent Pipeline Management framework builds on all the good work of the past few years, throwing it into warp drive by finally doing what we have all been trying to do--build a real partnership between education and business.

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