Looking at the ironic situation of India Inc’s inability to find enough talent, one is tempted to rephrase the famous lines of the 19th century English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and say: “People, people, everywhere, nor anyone to hire”. Depending on whom you ask, India could be adding anywhere between five and seven million people every year into the workforce. Yet, employers all over India say they are facing acute talent shortages.
ManpowerGroup’s Talent Shortage Survey, 2018, says that talent shortage is at 12-year high. With technology evolving by the day, the crisis seems to be worsening. Neither can we find enough skilled electricians, mechanics, masons, nor employ all the engineers we produce. Not to speak of experts in artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML)), Internet of things (IoT) and such new age skills, not a day passes without our bemoaning talent shortage amidst our ocean of people.
Enterprises expect the education system to reform and produce talented people in large numbers to meet the burgeoning demand. The government recognises part of this problem and has made skills development a national mission. All this panic and concern are natural and expected. While the plan to rapidly increase skill formation is the right policy initiative, will this be the panacea? Are we doing enough to address the problem? Are we at least doing what is within our grasp? We may not be lacking talent as much as we fear. What we lack is a talent for recognising with talent. A more inclusive approach to talent, greater willingness to bet on nascent talent, tapping uncommon talent pools, and a fundamental redirection of how we hold employers accountable for developing human capital can significantly mitigate the talent shortages.
Inclusion and affirmative action:
At the heart of our talent crisis is our confusion over diversity and inclusion. Diversity has often degenerated to ‘quota’ filling and ticking the boxes ritual .Diversity is not the same as inclusion. Inclusion comes from the belief that diverse people bring valuable differences. Being respectful of them and showing a genuine interest to include their opinions and contributions are a pre-requisite for enterprise success. India Inc has some ground to cover in this direction. Despite all the drumbeats about gender diversity and corporate programmes of asking women to come back, the participation rate of women in the labour force has fallen in India. We can always get away saying these are statistical lapses and continue our lip service to the gender agenda. The real change will come only when we ‘include’ women---understand and value their different perspectives. Once this is done, the action to recruit, promote, and leverage women talent will turn into a pro-active and affirmative programme. This alone will, at a gross level, bring in 20-30% more talent, waiting in the margins of the society, into the workforce and a large part of the so-called talent shortages will be mitigated. Further, if we can overcome our self-serving stereotypes of talent and reach out to the physically challenged and differently abled, the non-english speaking rural cousins, the tier III and tier IV towns, the northeast , the jawans and officers from armed forces, ex-criminals and other such not-so-common talent pools, our talent shortage will be further minimised.
Bet on raw talent:
Everyone knows given a true level playing field many will make the cut. The pervasive inequality of our larger society, perpetrated through privileged access to marketable qualifications, has obviously found deep roots into corporate India. Most companies have become exclusive clubs and fiefdoms of elite graduates from privileged backgrounds -each generation of them patronising the next to hold on to power and control. We confuse pedigree with performance and background with future potential and dig into the same known pool of “been-there-done-it” type of talent heroes. Legendary investor Warren Buffett said in a different context: “If past history was all that is needed to play the game of money, the richest people would be librarians.”This applies very much to how we take talent decisions. No one wants to bet on nascent talent within organisations. What is ironic that when it comes to pitching to investors and fundraising, bright youngsters from the very same backgrounds appeal to be trusted and plead for a greater tolerance for “failure”. But when it comes to their turn as entrepreneurs they have no patience with unproven talent. Obviously this limits the availability of talent for we continue to ignore our back yard and treat the home-cooked chicken as ordinary lentils ( I am deliberately translating to convey how native and raw wisdom works as well) . India Inc must shed its opportunism and learn from our otherwise popular music reality shows-- that given a little helping hand some unusual and unsuspecting ordinary folks can surprise you with rare capabilities. We need to hone our skills to assess talent and stop looking at capability form a rearview mirror. Specially, as the future is evolving into a maze of uncertainties, it is in fact stupid to do linear extrapolations of known performers into the future. This will not only make us future-ready but open up unexplored talent reserves within our home lands ; avoiding the trap of always finding talent across the fence.
Invest in Human Capital:
We have held on rather too long to the ‘resource’ view of humans (as means to be utilised and expended). This has considerably delayed building the talent timber of companies. We need to move quickly to the ‘capital’ view of people and understand that we must invest in people to make them more valuable over time. People can be grown, multiplied and harnessed like no other capital and yet we are stuck with a narrow ‘accounting’ view of people. Our answer to talent shortages will not come from wishing magical ‘production’ of talent from government run skill factories. The answer lies within each company’s leadership view of human capital. Identifying future needs of skills, selecting raw talent, investing in proven practices of talent development and providing a level playing field are what companies can do to address the alarming talent shortages.
All this is not to say we have abundance of talent and it is easy to find to the right talent always. This is to redirect our attention to finding, honing and harnessing what we already have. Companies may be running around the supermarkets of talent like the male musk deer searching the source of its irresistible scent all over the jungles and mountains , not knowing that it is often within, inside and can be grasped with awareness and openness.
Chandrasekhar Sripada (Chandra) is presently Practice Professor (OB & Strategic Human Capital) at the Indian School of Business ( ISB). Views expressed here are entirely personal.