Competing for Talent in Every Geography
June 24, 2014 Editor 0
In the late 1990s, Steven Hankin of McKinsey provoked a lot of discussion when he coined the phrase “the war for talent.” As the phrase became more popular (and was elaborated in a book), others used it to warn corporations of impending talent shortfalls, advocating that it be considered a strategic business challenge that required attention at the highest levels. With the dot-com burst, the recession, and other upheavals, the imperative took a backseat, but the challenge still remains.
The original thesis of the war for talent was predicated on significant demographic shifts, like aging populations in the West. While still relevant, those shifts are now just part of the equation. Consider several new realities:
- Many countries insist that foreign companies benefit the local community. Jobs have become a currency, and economic policymakers use them as a part of the bargain for entry.
- Many foreign companies that had an edge a couple of decades ago now face competition for local talent from newly prestigious home-grown companies that are able to tune their talent strategies to that particular context.
- It is increasingly difficult to send expats to some of the newer frontiers of growth. Talent is needed in Angola, Mozambique, Mongolia, Vietnam — places where the infrastructure is different from what an expat would experience in London, Paris, Singapore, or Sydney.
- Skill levels vary widely. Multinationals accustomed to attracting talent trained in the West now have to recruit locally where education levels can sometimes be inconsistent.
GE is one of many corporations now confronting these challenges. Operating in more than 170 countries, in multiple businesses that range from financial services to jet engines, and with more than 60% of our workforce based outside the United States, we must compete in every geography and get it right. Clearly, a multimodal talent strategy is required.
In the United States, and in West European markets, the challenges center around talent replenishment and knowledge transfer to assure that productivity remains high even as the Baby Boomer population starts to retire. We have a number of initiatives to address these challenges, including apprenticeships, partnerships to promote academic achievement and to assist public school students pursue advanced degrees, and programs to hire and train veterans of the armed forces and help recent graduates build critical leadership skills.
In Africa, where talent potential is great but education and skill levels vary and are still developing, we are starting to work with local universities and technical institutions to co-create a curriculum that will strengthen skills, particularly in technical disciplines. Further, we have appointed an advisory council consisting of eminent professors and practitioners from the continent who can help identify mutual needs and ensure long-term talent development.
In other countries where an advanced talent pool is more established, notably China and India, competition is intense. Here, training and continuing education are critical differentiators in terms of hiring and engaging employees. Our leadership-development centers in Shanghai and Bengaluru (or Bangalore) are therefore very important for us to show our commitment to our talent.
In addition to a differentiated talent strategy based on geographical needs, we are also fine-tuning our talent agenda based on other shifts. A few years ago, we invited a group of early career high-performers to advise the company on how best to factor their specific needs into GE leadership processes. One thing that stood out in their report was the question of retention. We have all heard the hypothesis that members of the Millennial generation have a greater tendency to move from company to company in the first few years after they step into the corporate world. The Global New Directions team, as it was called, advised: “Don’t try to retain us; instead inspire us to stay.” That idea prompted our businesses to connect more openly with our purpose, and the deeply embedded sense of mission that our employees share. The newer generation wants to know the “onlyness” — what is it that only your company can do to benefit the world and how that aspiration can inspire them to take up the cause.
The challenge is far from over, and we need to keep fine-tuning our approach at both global and local levels. Nevertheless, a strong workforce-planning focus that helps to size demand in different geographies and is coupled with an appropriate level of investment in learning and development are key to address this business challenge. Our leaders take this seriously. It is integral to long-term differentiation.
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