Work Therapy: Reskilling is the new normalDr. Steven Stein
In this week’s episode of Work Therapy with Dr. Steven Stein, we chat with Jeff Melanson, a Canadian business executive who has worked for more than 15 years in the fine arts community and public sector in some of Canada’s most noteworthy cities. Jeff is committed to using his vast creative entrepreneurship expertise to help build stronger, more vibrant communities across the country and around the world.
Jeff shares his philosophy on how to find more security in any job by understanding how you add value as an individual.
DR. STEIN: Ever feel like the rug is slipping out from underneath you? Like the job you used to know how to do has turned into something you’re not sure you’re even qualified for anymore? Most of us need some sort of professional development to stay competitive and effective in our careers. But what if that sort of training isn’t offered at your job? Or maybe you want to find some new growth areas and learn the skills you need to advance to a new role. I’m Dr. Steven Stein. I’m a clinical psychologist and founder of MHS, a leading developer of innovative scientific assessments in the talent development space and beyond. I’m here to tell you that work sucks sometimes. It does. I can admit it, but it doesn’t have to. In work therapy, we speak with experts from diverse backgrounds helping us wade through some of the most common issues people have on the job. We learn how to go beyond just surviving at work and learn how to start thriving because if work sucks, how can we fix it?
DR. STEIN: On today’s episode, “Reskilling is the new normal,” I chat with Jeff Melanson about how the skills gap originates. Jeff is a Canadian business executive who’s worked for more than 15 years in the fine arts community and public sector in some of Canada’s most noteworthy cities. Today, Jeff is going to share his philosophy on how to find more security in any job by understanding how you add value as an individual. It’s great to meet you, Jeff, and thanks a lot for doing this with us.
JEFF: It’s a real pleasure. Thank you for having me on.
DR STEIN: So, I’m really looking forward to our conversation today and learning more about this skills gap that we hear about so much. Today we talk about managing skills gap and re-skilling. People talk about getting back to basics or what I guess they call the talent gap. But let’s unpack this gap a bit first. What does this really mean and when does re-skilling come into play?
JEFF: Well, it’s a good question and it’s a little bit shocking, especially when you travel around the world and you hear about this labor shortage everywhere and you think, “Well, where did everyone go?” We didn’t have this in terms of a frontline series of press stories four or five years ago, seemingly. So, I think what’s actually happened is the requirements of industry have changed pretty radically. We have not anticipated how demographic shifts are going to impact how people think about employment, what type of employment they want, the employment conditions. So, in a way, we’re kind of the victim of this great system of education and talent development that we’ve built, which is extraordinary. If you think of everything from the K to 12 system to post-secondary to skilled trades colleges to private industry training programs, remarkable suite of opportunities for talent to engage.
JEFF: However, the modalities through which people consume training and are trained have shifted. We now have much more online training. Even I would say the last couple of years, there was a stat I heard the other day where before COVID, 5% of post-secondary students had ever taken an online class and after COVID, of course, it’s a hundred percent. So, these are pretty radical shifts that are happening pretty quickly. So, I think we’ve got changing needs of industry, a huge impact of disruptive technology, and then the modalities of learning have shifted, and we have not shifted our systems quickly enough to adapt to how particularly young people want to be trained and developed in terms of next generation jobs.
DR. STEIN: It’s almost as though our schools are set up to train people for yesterday’s jobs.
JEFF: Yeah, I would say, and it really is, there’s great wisdom and legacy in how we’ve built these models. The challenge is they’re so rigorous in some ways in terms of the design delivery, they’re not that adaptable. So, it’s very difficult to take under-resourced school systems or education institutions and ask them to concurrently run the whole suite of programs they were running yesterday and also build these new models for tomorrow simultaneously.
DR. STEIN: So, it sounds like we’re producing these kids, educating people for jobs, that they’re really not ready for in terms of what we’re looking for in skills. So, we call this program work therapy. When work sucks, how can we fix it? What do we do? How do we get these kids up to speed or get them into a place where they fit into our workplace?
JEFF: When we think about this concept of disruptive innovation, which we’ve talked about a lot over the last 25-30 years, the terminology was coined back in 1996. The core of disruptive innovation is if you get too attached to work yesterday, you might be limited in terms of your imagination looking forward. The challenge nowadays, particularly with the internet, with artificial intelligence, the speed of change, is young people have access to information and resources that we never had access to. So, they’re entering the system with a way of being and with access to information that we didn’t have. So, what does that mean for education? When you have a ChatGPT capable of producing what it can produce, what is the point of education then? How do we pivot the point of education in some compelling way? So, I think we’ve got systems that are really awesome in terms of scale and impact, but we haven’t really thought about how to retool them, and we certainly have not thought about what the young people are bringing in with them in terms of technological capabilities.
DR. STEIN: So, have you seen organizations that are able to manage that, to match individuals to the right jobs, have the right amount of training, or scale them up to what they need in terms of fitting the jobs that they have to do?
JEFF: You see a lot of private companies that develop their own training approaches. So, we’re actually seeing industry led certifications, which are being designed sometimes in collaboration with post-secondaries, but really are being designed to meet the specific needs of the employer. Then we’ve got this K to 12 and post-secondary systems, which are, again, laudable but are struggling to adapt as quickly as they need to adapt. And then you have the potential employee or the learner. Where I think there’s a real opportunity is to think about those existing ecosystem pieces as collaborators and try to figure out, well, how do we wed together these labor market shortages be they industry association, union or private corporation led, with opportunities to graft programming back into the post-secondary system in the K to 12. Because my worry is we’re seeing private companies do this pretty well, and I’m sure you’ve seen the Microsoft certifications, the Apple certifications and so on, but the question is how do we help by taking that industry innovation and connecting it back into the post-secondary in the K to 12 system? So, we’re getting a much wider audience and much more participation.
DR. STEIN: I guess one of the questions is how does someone know, who realizes they have to be re-trained; they’re not keeping up, do they go back to school to traditional bricks and mortar college and get a degree? Or do they do one of these virtual trainings that you’re talking about? How do people decide which way to go?
JEFF: I think it’s really so individual in terms of those next steps and where you want to go. I think what people are doing increasingly is thinking about where exactly do they want to end up, and which program is between them and that spot, and how do they do that sort of a program. I think the digital tools allow for much lower cost, much faster access to training pathways that can also be customized. So, the other advantage of the virtual world is, for example, if you’re training someone on a piece of equipment, you can basically modify in the virtual world that piece of equipment without having to retool your whole lab every two or three years as technology becomes outmoded. So, I think for people that are looking to re-skill, looking for whether it is a post-secondary pathway or a private industry certification, I think you have to judge exactly where you want to end up.
JEFF: I think the big change in assumption is twofold. One is we’re living way, way longer, way longer. So, in terms of meaning and purpose in life and the old… I don’t know, you and I probably shared this in common. I remember the whole freedom 55 as this big goal back when I was a kid. Oh, if you could retire at 55, wouldn’t that be great? And when we were living to be 73, that made sense because you retire and if you retired at 65 and only live to 73, you’re like, “I retire, I go on two trips and I die.” 55 would be greater because you have more time in terms of that last chapter of life. Now that we’re living into our eighties, nineties, hundreds, and if you follow this lifespan, health span research, I think we’re going to see most of us live to be a hundred. That retirement age is now 35 years.
JEFF: So, we’re actually getting close to the point where your time retired may be as long as your time working, which will probably require us to work longer, and we’ll probably want to work longer or redefine that last chapter. Then for the next 60 years, that’s good enough, it’s not good enough. So basically, the re-skilling and up-skilling challenge, it’s not really a challenge, it should be a fundamental pivot in how we think of human development; and the fact that whether we like it or not, I think they say now the half-life of most university degrees is down to about five years. So, you get trained up in a technical subject within five years of your graduation, half of what you learned in your degree is no longer relevant.
JEFF: So we’re going to need to constantly be training ourselves and constantly growing, which I think for most people sounds like a drag, but if you think about it in terms of your brain and your brain health and your development and your exploration of new frontiers and new possibilities, this is stuff we should really make foundationally part of what is expected of us and what is offered to us as human beings.
DR. STEIN: So, let’s move up the ladder a bit. You’re talking a lot about frontline skills and frontline workers. What about on the management side when we have to re-skill or improve our leadership or management skills? Again, we’re faced with that question of do we go back and get an MBA or are we seeing customized programs within organizations where we skill people in management and leadership within the organization?
JEFF: It’s a great question. My concern with within the organization is that whole old concept, which I think you can build around of groupthink, is a risk, right? So, if you’re within a company that approaches a certain problem with a certain series of solutions, and then you’re training managers in that environment only, there’s a risk if you’re not bringing an outside speakers or outside themes of being a little myopic. So that would be the one downside that I would watch for in terms of building internal re-skilling and management training programs. The idea, and it’s such a good idea, but I’ve seen it so poorly done of externships. Taking executives and finding thematic changes that you think are relevant but adjacent to your industry and creating externship reciprocal relationships with other companies.
JEFF: I’ve seen that be extremely valuable, where you take one of your senior leadership members, put them in, it could be even be like half day a week, it doesn’t have to be a full-time kind of environment, but you drop them into a different culture where there are different business assumptions, there’s a different awareness of a market which opens up some of the blind spots that might exist within your own enterprise. So, what I like to see is people advancing those externship opportunities within a company, making sure there’s real innovation happening. I think from a manager training perspective, you have to be very selective with training opportunities within post-secondaries and finding the right post-secondary given what your challenges might be or what the employees challenges might be.
DR. STEIN: So, what about all these business school programs that we’ve seen popping up for leaders and management? Are they useful?
JEFF: One of the downsides occasionally of business school, having done an MBA myself, is you sometimes get faculty who write case studies and approaches based on what they’ve heard other people have done. And if you do too much of that as a faculty member without being in it or without being entrepreneurial or building things, you might miss some of the nuance of what made something successful. So, the risk sometimes with business schools is if you’re not in it, sometimes you risk aggregating best practice to such a degree that it’s hard to actually say, “Okay, specifically here are the things that were the aha moments that led to that business success.”
JEFF: I did a series of interviews with business school deans, and I said, “Tell me about the challenges of running a business school.” And a number of them said, “We have a faculty of business, and we have a separate center of entrepreneurship.” And I said, “Well, why do you have that?” And I assumed, I was wrong, I assumed it was to create two donor naming opportunities so they could go to market and actually get person X’s name on one and person Y’s name on the second building. And what a number the deans said to me, not all of them, is they said, “There’s a real difference between our business faculty and entrepreneurial behavior.”
JEFF: And so, we try to separate the entrepreneurship initiatives from the business faculty because the foundations of business practice sometimes are not entrepreneurial. I’d be more inclined to look at innovation and entrepreneurship as an inspiration I’d look to ingest in a business rather than more traditional business practice, which sometimes lacks.
DR. STEIN: So, if you’re that person at work and you realize things are changing all around you in terms of your job, how do you go about figuring out what to do next? What kind of resources you need, where you should go for them? Do I go outside? Do I go inside? What do I do next?
JEFF: I’m going to give you my own personal bias on this one. I love stoic philosophy and I love individual accountability. So, I think if you’re an employee in any environment, you should be thinking for yourself, how can I continue to add more value to this environment and how can I extract, not extract in a greedy way, but if you’re constantly adding more and more economic value in an employment environment, the question of your job security and your future and your income and your compensation is secure. And I think that’s one thing that we have a little bit backwards in how we train people. We train a lot of people with expectations of what the employer is going to provide to me, but not as much a sense of what am I owing back to my employer?
JEFF: I would say in terms of your question, you should as an individual within a company, be really curious about what the company’s doing. And anytime the CEO makes an announcement, or you hear a speech, or you hear a concept that’s foreign to you, I would not think, “Someone in research and development or someone in marketing is actually doing that.” If you’re curious, go online, Google the subject, do some of your own research. Again, not that Google and the internet’s the perfect source for information, but you should be constantly curious about your company, what it’s doing, why it’s doing that, and where you add value to some of those big strategic themes that are emerging from the company. So that, I would say, is a responsibility of an employee in a company.
JEFF: And I think as an employer, likewise, looking at these themes that you think are coming that are going to have an impact on your company and then saying to your HR department or your organizational department, “How do we build the right type of training to address some of these things?” And sometimes it’s basic skill trades. I’m not saying basic, sometimes it’s just more foundational frontline kind of use cases. But other times it’s like, okay, well we’re seeing disruptive innovation and technology having an impact and opening up pathways here. And I would say that the HR department coupled with the C-suite should be looking at what are the big themes and then how do we develop our own approach to training.
DR. STEIN: Okay, so it’s almost like there’s no one size fits all in this type of environment. I like that individual responsibility or what you call the stoic approach. And one of the things we talk a lot about is emotional intelligence and how that fits into this whole picture. How do you see emotional intelligence fitting into that decision-making and how someone moves forward?
JEFF: There was this really interesting idea that I was exposed to earlier in my life and it was this idea of your success is going to depend on what you do as an individual and how successful you make all those people around you. So, leadership, it’s not about being smarter than everybody else in the room, it’s about creating the conditions for the people around you to excel. And I think that’s the cornerstone of emotional intelligence is really understanding, okay, who else is around me? What are their end game objectives? I can’t control what you’re going to do at the end of the day, but I can do whatever I can possibly do to create conditions for you to be a rockstar. And I think we don’t think enough about that. We think about the stoic thing, which I’m leaning on is at the end of the day, the outcomes of my life I can control because I’m in control of me and what I do, but how I go about creating an environment so that the people around me are really successful is super critical.
JEFF: So, I would say that as another cultural value, I would lean into that one because the reality is all of us had someone invest in us when we weren’t necessarily deserved of it, be that teaching us something, showing us something. We should remember that with gratitude and see that as part of how we should operate as people that we’re there to actually put wind in the sails of the people around us. And so, I think that’s part of what the emotional intelligence piece is, and that can be helping someone excel when they’re excelling, but more importantly it’s helping somebody with a bit of a leg up when they might be struggling a little bit. I think that’s really, really critical.
DR. STEIN: What you’re saying really involves being aware of what your people need and being willing to train them. And I guess the other part of what you’re saying is a company having a purpose, where the employee feels part of something bigger and aligns with the goals of that organization. So, you’re applying some of these things might even be bigger than the training. If you get that alignment in terms of values and purpose, then you can train that person on the job or after.
JEFF: Yeah, no, I totally agree a hundred percent with what you just said. So, in terms of meaning and purpose, and definitely if you look at next generation demographics, even more important. I think if you as an employee could say, “I’m working for a company that’s making a difference and that company sees me for what I bring and values me and is creating a pathway for me to grow,” which it sounds super complicated to do that, but if you think of the efforts we expend already and within our companies on these areas, it’s like what we talked about earlier, like the school system. We just have some aspects of the ecosystem a little misaligned and if we just supercharge them a little bit. and I think having worked with lots of companies, there’s lots of heads of human resources out there that are super frustrated because they’re like, “At the end of the day I end up dealing with pension issues and benefits and all of that, but I don’t feel like I’m brought in when the big strategy discussions and decisions are being made.”
JEFF: We treat the HR area as an area that just handles employee benefits and mediation issues and that sort of thing. But we haven’t looked at HR as a strategic part of the contribution towards the company’s success. We’ll say we do, but in terms of what the HR department is asked to lead and task to lead, I don’t see enough compelling leadership in that space. And we still have that hierarchical model where the CEO of the company and the C-suite is supposed to know everything, and they tell people what to do and they do it. So, we’re going to have to really change that model as things continue to adapt as quickly as they are where you’re building almost holistic organic communities of creative contributors to the success of the enterprise. And that’s going to require HR departments to be really dynamic. I think there actually should be a much broader understanding of how all of the human capital in a company contributes to its success. Not just saying that, but actually building mechanisms.
JEFF: And I think you point around an individual learning plan is a great point.
DR. STEIN: So, there’s two things you really put in there. One is bringing HR into the C-suite, I guess, putting them front and center in terms of the organization and where this organization is going. But the second thing makes me think that in terms of how you’re talking about the skill development, it’s not about degrees or diplomas or certifications so much as it is about growing and learning the right skills that you need to get the job done. So if you had to choose between a company that’s going to, I don’t know, give me continual growth, that’s going to help me learn about these new technologies that you’re talking about and master those as opposed to a place that’s going to say, “Okay, you’re going to be a leader in three years, we’re sending you off to a business school to get a certificate to build yourself up.” You’re implying that this continuous growth is going to be the real important thing that people are going to look for.
JEFF: I think so. And the big difference in the world is we have so many opportunities in terms of that professional development or personal growth. What does that mean to an employee and what kind of modalities are going to best suit their development? And I can tell you kids today, their comfort level with immersive technology is breathtaking, right? So, they are going to approach re-training totally differently than someone, I’m almost 50, someone who’s 50 years old. There’s going to be a requirement as well to think a little generationally and to also find a way, this is going to sound so “hallmarkish” or hokey, but I think we’re making another mistake, which is we’re hyper fixated on technology and we’re actually not thinking about how to interconnect people with decades of experience with the whiz kids that have the tech.
JEFF: And I see that pretty much everywhere. Because of the age gap in most companies, there isn’t a lot of thoughtful design thinking around, “Well, how do you actually take what a 22-year-old knows and couple it with what a 62-year-old knows?” Because there’s actually extensive wisdom in the brain of that 62-year-old that needs to be baked into the technological solution. They don’t have the tech knowledge the 22-year-old will have. And so, we have to create really different models within companies to sort of facilitate best practice across the generations as well.
JEFF: And inverse mentoring, do you know what I mean? It’s a very different mentoring format where I can tell you just working with technology companies, there are young people who can build anything you would want to build in the tech environment, like anything. And it’s a little overwhelming for someone as old as me even to hear some of the outcomes because I’m like, “Show me what this does.” And it’s like, “Well, what do you want it to do?” And you end up in this conversation where you’re going around in circles. So, for a 22-year-old who has that kind of worldview and a 62-year-old who has all kinds of lived experience and wisdom in a sector, it’s in a way the 22-year-old teaching the 62-year-old about new possibilities, and the 62-year-old teaching the 22-year-old about, “Okay, here’s my 40 years of lived experience.” Because if the tech solution drives over the experience, that’s not good. And if the experience gets you into the, “Well, we tried that last year, we did that in 1994 and it didn’t work well,” things are a little different than they were in 1994.
DR. STEIN: Well, that’s great. Sounds like you’ve got a lot of great ideas and the great issues that we got to deal with in terms of how we fill that skills gap and where we go in the future in terms of getting the right talent in the right place. And I like your emphasis on the importance of the organization, the brand, the purpose, and where it’s going, attracting people who fit and then lifelong growth and learning. That’s been great. Really appreciate you spending the time with us, Jeff. Thanks very much for being part of our podcast.
JEFF: Thank you for having me on. It was a real pleasure.
DR. STEIN: Okay, that’s all for my interview with Jeff Melanson. And while some aspects of the future of work can feel a bit intimidating, I’m pretty inspired by the idea of having a society where we’re actually encouraged and expected to keep growing and learning throughout our lifetime. Re-skilling is here to stay, and guess what? I’m here for it.
DR. STEIN: My first tip for you today is to embrace that idea with me and let go of the idea that your college degree is going to carry you throughout your entire career. It might be a bit unnerving, but the flip side is that perspective opens up new possibilities for your future. Then my second tip is to take some time to think about exactly where you want to end up next. Research what program or tool is between you and the future and start tackling it now. My third tip is especially for leaders, but for anyone else as well. Take advantage of opportunities to immerse yourself in different work environments and expose yourself to ideas from other fields in other work cultures. We all have blind spots and seeing things from a different angle is sometimes the best cure.
DR. STEIN: I’m Dr. Steven Stein and I look forward to our next episode of Work Therapy. Let’s make work suck less together.
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