With 81% of its population either Millenials or Generation Xers, the American Institute of Toxicology had to overcome the challenge of promoting promising talent that had practically no leadership experience.

That's where Rose Arant came in. A leadership training and development specialist, Arant helped AIT dramatically boost employee satisfaction rates for training the company's training programs and prepared AIT's scientifically talented young individuals for their new roles as supervisors and managers at its laboratories.

"We're a very young company in terms of how many years we've been around and also in the people," she explained at a Society for Human Resource Management conference session this summer.

Since its founding in 1990, the company has grown from five employees to close to 500. Between 2008 and 2010, AIT added 280 jobs. Currently, 41% of the company's population is Millenials, 40% Generation X, 18% baby boomers and 1% of employees are older than the baby boom generation.

With company demographics skewing so young, most of AIT's top talent were not trained to hold management or leadership roles. When young employees were promoted, many in their first job, they often had one year or less experience.

At first, they held a "go with God" approach to managing, said Arant. "Very few people who became supervisors had leadership training," she said. That's why the company hired her.

She interviewed employees and held focus groups to get a feel for company culture and level of management expertise.


Beyond book smarts

"We had a very talented staff, most with degrees in chemistry and biology. They were very eager to learn," she explained, adding she leveraged those strengths to promote leadership training and development. One major problem, however, was that she didn't "have a lot of experienced people to show [new managers] the ropes."

So, Arant set up two-hour classes and book forums to enhance would-be managers' core leadership skills, such as effective communication and conflict resolution. She explains that any program needs a variety of touch points. For the book forums, Arant discovered short reads were easier for science majors to digest, but that she also was able to engage the managers-in-training through lunch-and-learn sessions where she and her charges discussed the books and learned to apply them to real work situations. Despite their initial reluctance to read, Arant found she eventually had people lined up outside her cubicle when the new books were delivered.


Breaking up cliques

To underscore the importance of diversity, Arant forced the trainees to engage each other by having them sit in random seats during sessions rather than next to friends. Though this approach seems reminiscent of assigned seating in middle school, it worked.

"That connection goes way beyond the leadership training program; it helps them with their work," she said. For example, the marketing manager and laboratory leaders have now developed a collegial relationship, so it's easy to bridge the gap when it comes time for them to collaborate on work projects.

Arant also introduced monthly leaders forum, where she invited executives and community leaders address the group, including Brad Stevens, the youngest NCAA basketball coach for nearby Butler University.

"We learn a lot from other leaders ... because I didn't have a deep bench to draw on [within the company], what I did have were [leaders] in the community," she explained.

Internally, Arant launched an informal mentoring program where people in the program became mentors for other employees.


Satisfaction and skills show improvement

When AIT started the program in 2008, the executive team selected 35 leaders - all managers and directors without training or people the company hoped might move into those types of roles. They now have 80 participants.

In its Best Place to Work survey results, AIT's training satisfaction score increased from 66% in 2008 to 93% in 2009. The only thing they changed during that time was the leadership program.

"As you can see, we don't want the program to remain static. Where we were in 2008 is not where we are now. Some of the people that did not have skills back then now do," she said.

Managers' toolbox training also bolstered the gamut of training programs - including interviewing, hiring and "all the nuts and bolts that they want their managers and supervisors to know," Arant said.

Overall, the program was relatively inexpensive, Arant said. Its approximate yearly cost - for materials, books, lunches - was under $1,000.

To continue growing the program, with Arant's help, AIT implemented a year-long executive scholarship for three to six high-potential non-supervisory employees, and provided optional quarterly development classes for employees who are not managers. To participate, they need to obtain supervisory approval and articulate two or three goals for the class.

"I now have people with a little bit more experience than they had before the program," Arant said. "By starting training for all employees, it was a way we could leverage the people that we have trained to help develop their employees."

Ultimately, she believes it's a successful program: "We have a lot of anecdotal evidence that it's working."


EBN to convene roundtable on closing the skills gapAIT isn't the only employer to note that its current workforce lacked the skills the company needed to move forward successfully; in fact, the chasm between the skills U.S. workers possess and the skills required for open jobs is wide, getting wider and may be partially to blame for the nation's high unemployment.

In a September 2010 interview, former president Bill Clinton noted that "for the first time in my lifetime - and I'm not young...we are coming out of a recession but job openings are going up twice as fast as new hires. And yet, we can all cite cases that we know about where somebody opened a job and 400 people showed up. How could this be? Because people don't have the job skills for the jobs that are open."

Speaking on "Good Morning America" earlier this year, Clinton went even further on the severity of the nation's skills gap, saying that if there were skilled employees for every open position, U.S. unemployment could be as much as 2% lower than the 9.2% it is today.Speaking at the same SHRM conference as Arant-HR communications consultant Laurie Ruetimann noted today's HR/benefits managers "aren't hiring people as smart as they used to be."

In an attempt to help employers bridge the skills gap, EBN later this year will convene a roundtable of benefits professionals, authors and other workforce experts to discuss the reasons the skills gap persists and strategies for employers to overcome it. If you, a colleague or client would like to participate, email EBN Editor-in-Chief Kelley M. Butler at kelley.butler@sourcemedia.com.

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