Training for the real world

“Where have all the good employees gone?” This is what my mother asked me last night when I explained to her that the project management applicant our company was keenest on during the interview process wouldn’t be starting with us after all. We caught her lying at the close of the application period, and call me picky, but I’m pretty big on not being lied to.

In addition to honesty, there are a few other factors I require in prospective employees. No drugs. That’s a big one. Bathing regularly is also a plus. Joking aside, I ask for traits such as wanting to work and taking pride in a job well done, listening to client needs and working to those needs instead of upselling or slacking. Call me a simple woman, but I feel that these qualities are pretty basic.

Part of my mother’s disgruntledness, I’m sure, came from seeing businesses other than mine struggling to connect with qualified employees. A few years ago, our local Hardee’s restaurant closed. It had been owned by a friend of my dad’s and was a profitable franchise, well located next to the interstate — a growing, solid business. However, the owner couldn’t get enough quality workers. Oh, there were lots of people who applied, but once hired, they wouldn’t show up for work on time and they were rude to customers. So the owner told Dad that if he couldn’t get employees who would work right, he was closing because he didn’t want to run his business wrong.

It’s not just mediocre American fast food joints feeling the brunt either. On June 22, The Economist reported that a lack of skilled workers could “kill” the fashion industry in Italy. Not being able to buy a ham and biscuit is one thing. Take away my couture and we have a real problem on our hands. Yet in the article “Dropped stitches,” designer Ermanno Scervino says, “Within a generation the ‘Made in Italy’ label may be gone.” Fashion, one of the few industries in Italy to survive the economic downturn unscathed, is now in jeopardy for the same reason the Hardee’s in Cadiz, Kentucky shut down. Can you say overreaching global problem?

It’s easy for me to chalk all this up to a lack of work ethic and capabilities, but surely this broad-sweeping generalization can’t hold true. It’s too easy to stereotype, too easy to blame. Another Economist article presents a much more logical solution: we’re just not training folks right. It’s not that we don’t want to work; we just don’t know how. In “Best and brightest,” which ran August 17, The Economist reviewed Amanda Ripley’s book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. According to Ripley, children in the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany aren’t learning problem-solving skills at a successful rate. However, Poland saw this problem coming way before the rest of us and actually took action. When Miroslaw Handke became Minister of Education in 1997, he put the focus back on simply teaching students how to solve problems on their own. In other words, buy a man a fish and he’ll eat for a meal. Teach him how to think critically, he’ll eat caviar for a lifetime.

In our own industry, the Globalization and Localization Association (GALA)’s Global Talent Initiative seeks to teach skills that our industry requires but aren’t already being taught. While the program is too new to really write much about, the sheer fact that it exists is promising. It’s one thing for company owners to whine in private; it’s entirely another for our industry leaders to actually group up and do something.

It’s not just GALA seeing that this needed to be done. The Translation Automation User Society (TAUS) has its own workforce training initiative. Whereas the GALA program is employer-focused, the TAUS program focuses on helping its employer members from the bottom up. Basically, with this program, students think of ideas they want to study and TAUS determines just how real-world and applicable they really are, sponsoring student development of selected ideas. While this is a start, when you look at the topics, they’re really a list of glorified theses, such as “Experimenting With Bi-Directional Pharma Italian-Greek Statistical Machine Translation.” The problem is that the qualified employee shortage is more real-world than the study topics this program addresses. While academia has its place, as Ripley insinuates, so long as schools focus on teaching tasks and not on creating ability, academia and industry will forever be at a disconnect.

Of course, if everyone were able to do this, the world wouldn’t need translation companies. When discussing our work shortages with people from the outside world, most folks assume we mean people aren’t learning enough foreign languages. But as profiled online by CNN Money on September 10, project managers, sales personnel, and other back office workers — all non-translation positions — are in short supply. This short supply is keeping our industry from growing and ultimately means that we’re all losing money, whatever the reasons it exists.