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The familiar platitude "people are our most important asset" has always sounded like bull to me. For the past two years, unemployment in the United States has hovered around 10 percent, while corporate profits have bounced back from the 2008 crash and overall economic growth is relatively strong worldwide. Apparently, business doesn't really need people all that badly to get things going again. Maybe our instinctive reaction to this old chestnut is right after all.
Yet, as I've written in the past, talent shortages are a vital and ongoing concern for supply chain organizations trying to cope with rapid change in technology and industrial structure. Senior leaders struggle to find, develop and retain versatile professionals capable not only of creating a forecast or inventory plan but of understanding how these tactics confer a competitive edge. Some people, it seems, really are an important asset.
On one hand, the implication is clear: Education separates the people who matter from the people who don't. U.S. unemployment for those without a high school diploma, for instance, has held fairly steady at 15 percent since early 2009, while those with a college degree have experienced only 5-percent joblessness in the same period. Unskilled labor certainly looks like a bad way to make a living, but even for the highly educated, today's economy offers little in the way of job security. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 55- to 64-year-old men with only a high school diploma have the exact same average tenure as those with a college degree - 10.4 years with the same employer. The truth is people aren't the asset business is referring to. Rather, it's the knowledge they bring to the job.
Such knowledge, however, is widely accessible on a contract basis, without any of the headaches of bringing on full-time employees. The most pervasive trend in all of supply chain since 1990 is probably the growth of outsourcing. With everything from engineering to manufacturing and packaging available from specialist third-party providers, often available 24/7 from distant locations around the world, it has become difficult to justify incremental head count on the payroll. Include the rising cost of benefits and sticky issues on termination, businesses find it increasingly unattractive to add people.
Squaring this paradox isn't a matter of policies meant to encourage job creation by big business, but facilitation of the naturally rising market for knowledge that outsourcing has begun to tap. Ever wider access to the tools of knowledge creation and dissemination makes entrepreneurialism the best path out of our chronic 10-percent unemployment funk. Expertise is the asset business craves. Solo practitioners selling the right expertise at the right time, using nothing more complicated than an Internet connection and a telephone, can readily play the game.
Such craving, however, is ephemeral, with today's "special sauce" an irrelevant commodity tomorrow. It may be time for more and better clearinghouses or marketplaces for talent to evolve. Discovery and verification of increasingly specific expertise are essential to bring liquidity to such markets. Lessons learned in the early days of B2B marketplaces, such as E2open and Exostar, will help. Certification and standards organizations, such as APICS or Supply Chain Council, can also help with semantics.
The best supply chains in the world know how and when to use this market. Job seekers would be better served if they stopped thinking of themselves as people and packaged their expertise the way business wants it instead - without the human wrapper.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Source: Gartner Research
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