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You May Have To Settle for Workers With Basic Skills

You May Have To Settle for Workers With Basic Skills

November 1, 1996
Five years ago, Mercury Marine—a Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, boat manufacturer—had people lining up at the HR office looking for work. Although the unemployment rate in Wisconsin was higher then, the company just wasn't hiring.

Today, the situation is reversed. To fill 500 production jobs last year, the company had to lower its standards considerably. "We've exhausted the labor pool," says Joe Slezak, director of training and development. "We can't be picky anymore."

By recruiting from local community colleges, Mercury Marine used to hire trained machinists and people who understood basic quality concepts. "Today, because the community college is tapped out, we look for the basics," Slezak says. "We ask applicants, 'Can you read? Can you do basic math? Do you want to work? Can you show up on time?'"

To combat the lack of skills and experience, Mercury Marine has had to develop an aggressive in-house worker training-and-development program. The effort includes training in quality concepts and machine operations, as well as hundreds of self-taught programs in basic and advanced reading, math and technical job skills. Believing ongoing education is imperative in today's workplace, the company also operates a Personal Development Center where employees work with college advisors to develop educational goals. Employees also enjoy a full tuition-reimbursement program.

"We've always offered training," Slezak says. "But now, we have to provide more remedial education to get people in the door."

As important as training is, few companies are looking at it as the key to solving the current labor crunch. "It makes sense that if you can't find skilled workers, you'd do all you can to train them," says David Axson, vice president of The Hackett Group, a management consulting firm based in Hudson, Ohio. "The problem is, companies are suffering from a skills shortage now, and they see training as more of a long-term strategy."

But as Mercury Marine discovered, training is a way to not only bring workers up to speed, but also help companies recruit in a tight labor market. "Training has become a sell point for us," Slezak says. If applicants have a choice between working for a company that provides educational opportunities and one that doesn't, Slezak believes they will pick the one where they can grow.

Personnel Journal, November 1996, Vol. 75, No. 11, p. 60.