Educated Work Force An Asset Michigan
Cant Afford To Lose

September 17, 2007
| By Pete Daly |
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GRAND RAPIDS — As baby boomers begin to retire and many Michigan corporations "downsize," laying off large numbers of employees — especially many of the most experienced — a human resources expert warns that the work force may see a shortage of leadership material.

"We are in a period where organizations are downsizing because they've outsourced their labor needs to someplace cheaper. The downside to that is, we run the risk of liquidating too much talent," said Dan Wiljanen, a human resources consultant and a faculty member at DavenportUniversity

"The educated employees and those with valuable experience will go where the work is. If things turn around in Michigan and new opportunities open up for business, we may not have those educated workers anymore," he said.

Most business assets only depreciate over time, explained Wiljanen, but "human assets are one of the few that can appreciate in value. There are ways to increase the potential value of your human assets," said Wiljanen.

Wiljanen spent 25 years in human resources at Steelcase Inc., where he was vice president of human resources and then dean of SteelcaseUniversity. He is an expert in corporate strategic planning with emphasis on development of human resources, and has worked as a consultant to companies and organizations including United Technologies, Alticor, Kaydon Corp., GrandValleyStateUniversity and Saint Mary's Health Care.

Wiljanen maintains that one of the primary methods of increasing the value of human assets is through education, encouraged and subsidized by the employer through tuition reimbursement. But formal training and university classes are just one way, and tuition rates are becoming so high in Michigan that employers may be forced to consider other ways to grow the intellectual assets of their employee base.

Here are some other strategies recommended by Wiljanen for increasing the value of human assets, not all of them feasible for all employers, he said, but all worthy of consideration:

Challenge employees: "Give them challenges in their work that make the day more interesting. Find out what interests a given employee has, and try to find a challenge that involves that interest. Maybe you have a young employee who is interested in learning Chinese, and maybe you have a need for an additional employee in your department that deals directly with your Chinese supplier. That could be a perfect match, for the employee and your company."

Rotate job assignments: "Getting your people to take on a different job will broaden their experience and their perspective of the company as a whole."

Mentoring: "This can be as simple as casually suggesting to an employee that someone else in your company — a peer or a supervisor in some other department — might have some valuable tips or experience to share and would be happy to talk to that employee."

Coaching: "If someone has a hidden talent or has had some unusual experience in something, is there a way they can share that knowledge with others in the company? Maybe you have someone who worked in broadcasting, or had something published, or was a pilot in the armed forces. That person may have some insight or experience that some other employee can learn from. It could end up helping the person being coached, and do wonders for the coach's self-esteem."

Taskforce assignments: "Putting someone on a taskforce charged with solving a specific business problem is always good experience for their personal development, and will help in any potential future role in management."

Project assignments: "Project teams usually have a broader scope and a definite end date. There is more stress in projects, but anyone who wants to be effective in management has to be able to effectively manage stress — their own and others."

Group read-and-share: "I don't mean a break room discussion aboutHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows." Every person in the business or institutional world must be a reader if they are to advance intellectually and stay on top of new trends in their business. There is almost always something new and useful to be found and read, on every topic. I'd challenge employees regularly to find something that pertains to their work, read it and talk about it with their peers. And don't let them limit themselves to whatever they find in Google or Wikipedia. The Internet is a great way to find out what's out there, but sometimes you just have to go to the library to actually get a copy of it. The wisest and best-educated people I know are always going to the library."

Community service projects: "These can be great for team experience and for the individual's sense of accomplishment and self-worth. They are also excellent public relations opportunities for your company in your community. In some cases the community service can be an individual project, such as tutoring or serving as a mentor in local schools. Schools and other nonprofit organizations are always looking for corporations that have employees willing to spend an hour each week as a tutor or mentor. The cost to your company? Nothing. But the potential payback can be significant."

Continuous improvement: "Continuous improvement strategies have been around for a long time, such as lean manufacturing, just-in-time production, and kaizen, a Japanese word for 'improvement.' The Japanese don't have much to waste, and they know elimination of waste means better business and more profits. I don't think we have to argue about the strength of the Japanese auto industry today, do we? Being part of a continuous improvement team offers a challenge to each team member and is an opportunity to really help improve the bottom line, for everybody. You can always find employees in almost any organization who have seldom or never been exposed to the brainstorming and camaraderie that are part of the continuous improvement process."

Overseas assignment: "Management tends to send the same individuals on overseas assignments every time. If you are able to send someone new, try it. It might pay dividends for the company as well as greatly increase the value of that employee. It might make your company more competitive in the global economy."     

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