Is there a better cohort might to survey about the state of American business, workforces, and competitiveness than Harvard Business School grads?
Chances are a whole bit fat bunch of us are taking direction today from a grad of the famous business school. It does stand to reason that if you survey enough HBS grads you will get a pretty decent understanding of what business leaders are thinking, saying, and doing, (or importantly, not doing).
This is a long read, so you might want to save it for the weekend, but I definitely encourage you to check out An Economy Doing Half Its Job: Findings of Harvard Business School's 2013-2014 Survey on US Competitiveness. The Harvard researchers, led by Michael Porter and Jan Rivkin, surveyed about 1250 HBS Alumni on questions of US firm's competitiveness, the quality of the workforce from a skills perspective, and their assessment of how the US K-12 Education system is performing in terms of producing capable and qualified workers.
Long, long story short, while US firms remain highly competitive across a wide range of sectors, the HBS grads' responses about many important workforce-related questions do not bode well for workers today, and in the longer term as well.
There are lots of great money quotes from the study, (and again you really should take the time to read it all), but here is one that stuck out for me:
Workers will not invest in developing their skills if it does not lead to employment and higher living standards. Employers will continue to turn to technology, vendors, or other alternatives to address their needs. The associated loss of productivity growth will further undermine both America’s economic growth and its long-term competitiveness
Makes sense, people will not be incented to try and get better or improve their skills if they can't see a connection, even a potential connection, between this kind of investment and improved career prospects.
But even if individuals don't see the link between skills development and a better living standard, then certainly organizations will still continue to invest in skills development anyway, right? After all, the organizations need and lament the lack of skills in large swaths of the workforce. Well, maybe not. Here is a another quote from the HBS study:
Our survey reveals that business leaders in America are reluctant to hire full-time workers. When possible, they prefer to invest in technology to perform work, outsource activities to third-parties, or hire part-time workers. For instance, 46% of survey respondents strongly or somewhat agreed that their firms' US operations prefer to invest in technology to perform work rather than hire or train employees, while only 25% disagreed.
So it seems like what we have been mostly thinking is likely mostly true - organizations would rather automate, outsource, find alternative (and cheaper) ways to get work done rather than take on more full-time staff (or train and 'upskill' the staff they have).
It is a tough problem, with no easy solutions. The HBS authors do make several recommendations to try to better align workforce capability with opportunity and to encourage organizations to make investments in talent much like they have been making investments in technology. And while the answers to these problems are not simple, it does seem that unless we (all of us), begin to take them more seriously that large numbers of American workers are going to be left behind.