Moving the Employment Line: How State Job Centers May Fuel T-Shaped Skills

Often, the best ideas are so good because they have more than just one application. Take T-shaped training, for example.  The concept of the T-shaped employee is helping companies to maximize the potential of their workers.  Could T-shaped training also help today’s unemployment picture? Some states seem to think so, and are taking steps to include it in their employment programs.

For some time, many of us in high tech management have seen the ways that workers have used T-shaping to flourish in the workplace, and it has helped guide our management decisions about hiring and training. Universities have a mixed record when it comes to preparing tomorrow’s workforce for the Big Data future, but “T-shaping” is increasingly viewed as an educational priority. In my view, the development of T-shaped skills may be equally important for the under and unemployed workers of today.

Despite ourmen-in-bread-line stubbornly high national unemployment rate of over 7 percent, The U.S. Bureau of Labor points to a major problem in finding workers who are skilled in analytics. Even with so many people out of work, there are some 3.7 million unfilled jobs in our economy right now that relate to the new Big Data reality.  And as Baby Boomers retire, the skills gap is likely going to get worse. After all, the average age of the “ideal” high skilled worker is now 56 years of age, according to one estimate.  T-shaped employees are clearly becoming part of  employer expectations.

An industrial employer in Milwaukee described the skills-gap problem his company is facing to a reporter, noting that computer skills were needed to run his mill’s equipment. Out of more than one thousand applications, he found only 25 that had the required computer and data skills. A year later, the employer said, he had laid off or lost 15 of those workers.

If given the chance to hone their T-shaped skills, older unemployed workers may be part of the answer.

T-shaped Skills as a Competitive Advantage for States and Regions

What, if anything, are state unemployment training programs doing to fill the the need for T-shaped workers?  It turns out that most states aren’t doing anything, but there are some exceptions. Both New York State and California have specifically adopted the use of T-shaped training (with a focus on such qualities as emotional intelligence), while several other states are more quietly embracing T-shaped training for unemployed workers.

New York and California have two very different ways of approaching T-shaped employee training. New York relies on a more traditional model, using workshops to teach large groups of potential workers at once, while California uses a unique, one-on-one mentoring approach.

Some of the key beneficiaries of T-shaped training efforts in New York, California and elsewhere have been state community college systems. As a result of a demand for high tech-trained workers, community and technical skills colleges have their highest levels of enrollments since World War II.

It is too early to tell if T-shaped training is effective for all or even most of the people and managers who rely on state employment programs for personnel. The rise in part-time employment is especially pronounced among graduates of state employment programs, and some studies suggest T-shaped training is effective in very specific settings, industries, or usually work best only for full-time work.

However, one thing is for certain: corporations are demanding skilled, T-shaped workers. And if state employment programs are unable to provide them, hirers will look elsewhere, or develop these training programs themselves.



The Opportunities and Challenges Facing T-Shaped Employees in Today’s Enterprises

375-initial-letter-t-with-dragons-q90-500x495Do you have Google Envy? With Google shares soaring past $1000, you may be looking at your own company and wondering what their secret sauce is.

For one thing, Google employees really like working there.

In workplace satisfaction surveys for the last four years, Google has consistently been near the top of all high tech companies. In 2012, Google managed an enormous jump in employee satisfaction, up almost 40 percent and moving in front of Facebook employee satisfaction.

Is this because Google employees are getting rich off of their stock options? Actually, those high stock values and salaries are relatively low considerations in employee satisfaction. The Huffington Post has reported that only 9 percent of Google employees and 10 percent of Facebook workers considered salary as their top incentive.

Identifying T-Shaped Hiring Prospects

One key to Google’s high employee satisfaction is likely due to Google’s prowess at using data analysis to hire the right kind of T-shaped employees in the first place. T-shaped employees, as you may be aware, have a specific area of deep knowledge (the vertical line of the T) along with a broader understanding of a range of areas, as well as “soft skills” like emotional intelligence (the horizontal line) that they can connect to their specialty. This model enables employees to collaborate in ways that spur creativity and innovation that a more traditional “siloed” organization structure does not.

Google’s interview process is so unique (and in my opinion, successful) because it is self-consciously data-driven to precisely identify the essence of T-shaped skills. Even the Washington Post has taken note, praising the way employees from across the Google workforce are used to interview prospective teammates, even though they may never actually work with the person again.

Developing Employees Through T-Shaped Training

When T-shaped training was first proposed in 1991, it was on the basis of a psychological study suggesting it would increase job satisfaction. A more recent study mentioned last year in Psychology Today suggests that T-shaped employees are also more productive and able to “hit the ground running.”

In an increasing number of workplaces, the concept of T-structured training is becoming more widely adopted for employee development. One company places enough value on the idea to say it in their employee handbook. Valve, Inc., a Bellevue-based software company, states they “believe” in T-shaped employees, but discourage any “formalized” employee development, opting instead for a more informal, collaborative model.

Once a company decides to hire T-shaped employees, those employees often have their own creative, individualistic ideas about what their particular shapes means. Adria Saracino, for one, cautions about falling into what she says may turn out to be a “T-shaped Black hole.”

Put another way, T-shaped employees aren’t going to work very well in cookie cutter positions.

As T-shaped training becomes more a part of an employer’s expectations, employees also develop their own expectations for becoming T-shaped. One question is whether T-shaped teams are making it easier, or harder, to get work done.

In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control called overwork a virtual US epidemic, with almost a third of workers getting less than 6 hours of sleep a night. Unfortunately for T-shaped employees, creative collaboration does not tend to thrive in the midst of perpetual workplace stress. Not only that, what happens when some team members don’t pull their weight?

The only answer here is probably to expect more from universities, who need to train students about team responsibility and successful collaborative skills that are essential to being T-shaped. One study of college students, done by North Carolina Sate University, shows great benefits in the idea of T-shaped teams, but also suggested that if the T-shaped teams are dysfunctional or ineffective, they may even cause more harm than good.

Bill Gates was a pioneer in taking time to just think, taking what he called two “think weeks” each and every year of his tenure at Microsoft. Employees who are given some time “off the grid” to think and talk about their t-shaped role and how it fits into the larger organizational framework are more likely to be productive for the company and fulfilled as individuals.