Op-ed: New approaches to developing human resourcefulness

John Lawrence

John Lawrence

The failure of job creation to keep pace with those willing and able to work is a major threat to American progress. Part of this problem lies in an old story — the continuing mismatch between skills and competencies needed by employers and those possessed by job-seekers. But part of it also stems from misunderstanding what here is termed human resourcefulness (HR).

HR administration is paid lip service particularly in the small and medium enterprises that comprise the backbone of industrialized economies. Even in nonprofit sectors, where more HR emphasis might be expected, HR management seems to be a distributed chore for senior managers. In one survey:

“Eighty-four percent of nonprofit respondents agreed that the HR function is critical to their organization’s ability to fulfill its mission, yet few prioritize the HR function within their organizations. The majority of respondent organizations (52 percent) do not [even] have a dedicated HR professional” — [Non-Profit Employment Trends Survey 2011 http://www.nonprofithr.com/?src=gendocs&ref=TrendsSurvey&category=OS]

This peculiar shortcoming in human resources management is confined to the demand side of the HR supply/demand chain, i.e. on how personnel are managed most effectively, usually at a given workplace. Clearly preferable would be greater respect for, and institutional commitment to, administrative and policy priorities for human resources management. Yet there is another, even more crucial, aspect of this chain where relationships between actual, and desired, states are way too weak, and are too often left to chance — disguised as `market forces.’

On the HR `supply’ side,  the process by which people prepare for, and select, initial occupational preferences, and then conduct their work is increasingly complex, and fraught with obstacles. Shaping, through education/training, the skills, knowledge, experience and behavior necessary to flourish at work is a challenge facing most people at a point in life (youth) when decision-making is still embryonic, when mistakes are common, and when — although strengths are considerable — vulnerability is also endemic. Once a fairly linear, traditionally segmented progress from school to work, this process now tends to be much more complicated and cyclical. Repetitive personal retooling is now the norm, as is greater occupational shifting and agility to adapt to labor force `churning’  during a single lifetime.

From a public policy perspective, much of this obstacle course is conducted serendipitously. Little articulation exists between educational levels, or between education and employers, and still less with health sectors. Young people entering the labor force (and increasingly middle-aged and older workers) must somehow navigate the occupational supply/demand channels, often with limited preparation, information or support, again like flailing swimmers at the mercy of swirling labor force currents.

Even those emerging successfully from college may be more likely to have debts than a guaranteed path to prosperity.

These joint crises of unemployment and rapid technological change are giving birth to new theories around human resources development, which look now beyond just skills training, and focus on intersectoral public policy.

Instead of relegating the human resource to simply a factor in production (human capital), or, even less positively, as mere transactional inputs for corporate exploitation, policy decision-making is urged to direct itself more toward defining, promoting and sustaining something called human resourcefulness as a national goal.

This redirection means looking at human resources development as a complex system, expanding, for everyone, the opportunity set for promoting human freedom, resilience to stress and productive ingenuity on both sides of the livelihood domain i.e. preparation (education and training) and implementation (work and livelihood). This would make policies that support this process more transparent, and user-friendly.

Stamford resident John E.S. Lawrence is an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International & Public Affairs, and is former principal adviser and deputy director, Social Development Division, of the U.N. Development Program’s Bureau of Development Policy.

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