COVER

Doing what it takes

BARBARA WICKENS June 27 1994
COVER

Doing what it takes

BARBARA WICKENS June 27 1994

Doing what it takes

Employers set out demands for a broad range of skills

At the recent Multimedia 94 conference and trade show, more than 300 national exhibitors, from computer industry giants to small niche companies, displayed their wares for integrating digital technology with traditionally separate media such as text, photography, video, voice and music. For some visitors, the Toronto show also served as an on-ramp in their search for work on the information highway. At one display, so many job seekers stopped by that Ellie Rubin, a founding partner of The Bulldog Group Inc., quickly devised a low-tech response: she handed out a sheet of paper listing the qualifications that any serious applicant should have. The technical requirements for working at Bulldog, a Toronto marketing firm that specializes in new communications vehicles such as interactive kiosks and CD-ROM publishing, are comprehensive. They include a background in graphic design or video production and proficiency in four, and preferably nine, specialized software programs, from MacroMedia Director to Sound Edit Pro. But, Rubin notes, technical skills are only part of the picture. Employees must also be creative, flexible and able to work well in teams. “I like to sum it up by saying we are looking for the professional eclectic,” she says.

To be both a specialist and a generalist is clearly a tall order. But as new technologies and the pressures of global competition continue to transform the Canadian economy, workers will need those traits, and more, just to get in the door—let alone forge a career. “Much more is required of an employee today, compared with 10 years ago,” says Jim Delaney, a Toronto-based principal with William M. Mercer Ltd., a human resources consulting firm. “The bar for entry has been raised.” While experts say that the ability to grasp abstract concepts, to innovate and to communicate will be especially prized by New Economy companies, every sector will also need well-educated employees who are able to identify and solve problems on their own. To get an entry-level job in the oil and gas industry, for instance, workers needed a Grade 10 education just a few years ago. Today, they need Grade 12, and by the year 2000, according to industry experts, they will need 16 years of formal schooling. Such changes have made the traditional distinctions between blue-collar and white-collar workers largely irrelevant. Instead, the labor force can increasingly be divided into “knowledge workers”—those who are highly trained and skilled—and unskilled workers. For the latter, the future could be particularly bleak: in the global economy, unskilled Canadians will compete with unskilled workers from around the world, including those from low-wage, developing countries.

Advanced technology has forced growing numbers of employees in a wide range of positions to view the big picture—and what their contribution is to it. A decade ago, for instance, the work in an oil refinery was highly structured and largely mechanical. Workers were responsible for operating valves and maintaining pipes in their immediate area, in the way they had been taught. But as refineries became computerized, workers moved off the plant floor and into a remote office where the controls were located. This has resulted in two major changes, says Delaney. Fewer people are needed to operate the refinery and those who are still there must understand the workings of the facility. “People must be able to deal with the conceptual flow of the operations,” he adds.

The recession has further hastened the need for employees who can work efficiently and effectively on their own as well as in teams. To reduce costs, Canadian companies cut thousands of jobs—and, unlike previous recessions, those cuts often came from middle and upper management levels as well as from the shop floor. As a result of this socalled de-layering, there are now far fewer supervisors in most corporations. ‘Ten years ago when we recruited, the No. 1 question we asked was, ‘How long will this employee stay with us?’ ” says Roger Lemay, manager of recruitment for CP Rail System of Montreal. But now, CP, like many other corporations, is “trying to do much more with fewer people,” according to Lemay. And when deciding in recent rounds of layoffs who to keep and who to let go, he says that the company kept those with the strongest people skills: those who could delegate, could motivate other people, were sensitive to other’s feelings and could analyse how to get the best work from them. CP also looked for those employees who were prepared to make decisions, whatever their level. “The guy in the shop has to realize that he has a direct impact on the bottom line,” Lemay explains. “If he decides not to fix a wheel properly, the car will break down and that will hurt our customer service.”

THE EMPLOYERS’ WISH LIST

When it comes to looking for the new, ideal employee, each company has its own priorities. Still, in interviews with industry executives, analysts and academics, certain desirable skills and qualities were mentioned time and again. In addition to being technically proficient, a top-notch employee should be:

• literate •creative

• motivated

7"

analytical

communicative \/^

• able to conceptualize

• able to interrelate with others \/^

• able to think independently \/^

• willing to learn 1/^

While the future may belong to the knowledge worker, getting there still involves some surprisingly old-fashioned skills. “The fundamentals have not changed,” says Jan Kloosterhuis, director of human resources for Arthur Andersen & Co. in Toronto, who recruits chartered accounting personnel from business schools across Canada. “We have always looked for people with good communication and interpersonal skills.” Kloosterhuis adds that many potential candidates have technical knowledge that meets or exceeds the company’s expectations, but are not up to par in such basics as reading, report writing and dealing with clients. “That is a lot to build into a four-year degree,” she adds.

Many employers, however, continue to turn to the educational system with the hope that it will produce future employees who are primed for work. “I hear all the time from people in business and industry saying, ‘Send us people who can read, write, think and work with people and we will teach them the technical skills we want them to have,’ ” says Sylvia Lee, president of Masakhane College, a private vocational school in Grand Centre, Alta. As a result, says Lee, who served on the Alberta government’s recent review of its education system, one of the most important lessons a student can learn is how to learn. “A student who never learns to synthesize information and make connections between disparate situations becomes a passive employee, waiting to be told what to do, and how to do it,” explains Lee. “Canadian business and industry needs a lot more from its employees—and so does society.”

The fast pace of technological change also makes it imperative that employees continue to learn throughout their careers. Roger Downer, a vice-president of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, notes that personal computers have become a giant industry only in the past decade. “Who knows which particular industries will be around 10 years from now?” Downer says. “That means we are not training people for a job, we are training them to think.” Students in programs like engineering and mathematics are “strongly encouraged” to take courses in liberal arts as well, Downer says. At the same time, he adds, the university’s culture deliberately aims to contribute to student awareness what is needed in the working world. In Waterloo’s co-operative education program, students work for four to six terms before graduating (page 34). As well, university faculty are encouraged to interact with industry, so that they can bring firsthand experience back to the classroom, Downer says. “It’s more than simply looking at books,” he adds.

Despite the importance of a formal education, some first-time job hunters might be heartened to learn that recruiters are interested in more than how they performed in the classroom. “Someone from a blue-collar family who has to work a 30-hour week to afford a postsecondary education and still gets Bs and Cs, that’s all right,” says CP’s Lemay. “The study freaks who get all A’s might not have as much to offer.” Andersen’s Kloosterhuis agrees that being well-rounded is important to potential employers. In addition to schooling and part-time work, taking part in extracurricular activities, from team sports to the chess club, may help a student gain entry to the workforce, she says. “The schooling and marks are important, I’m not denying that,” adds Kloosterhuis. “But then we are looking at experience, diversity, are they inquisitive, do they take on individual challenges?”

Events far beyond Canada’s borders are also having an impact on which skills are most in demand. “I believe it is unconscionable to graduate students without a good grasp of the global economy and the major trading blocs that comprise it,” says Scott Carson, dean of commerce at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. “That means people must be sensitive to different cultures and different ways people do things in those cultures.” At the same time, the heightened emphasis in Canada on small business as the engine of economic growth is also forcing graduates to have a broader perspective. According to Carson, many MBA programs graduate students who are geared to work at large, publicly traded companies— but those companies represent a diminishing percentage of Canada’s employers. “Instead, we need entrepreneurs and people who are self-reliant,” he says.

BARBARA WICKENS

To be prepared for the changing business environment, Carson, the former head of corporate finance for the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, ordered a review of the department when he took over as dean in 1992. Its aim is to devise courses to teach students specific abilities that it determines they should have on graduation. Carson has also established a business advisory board of executives from Canada, Mexico and the United States to keep the department abreast of current trends. Students, furthermore, are encouraged to study for a term or a year abroad at any of the universities in Mexico, China, Vietnam and Scotland with which Saint Mary’s has forged links. Specialist, generalist, visionary, doer, high-tech wizard, skilled communicator, local activist and global trader—the New Economy employee has to wear many hats and, to compete, must wear them well.