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Keeping Employees' Skills Current Keeps US Working: Opinion

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There continues to be media coverage every day about our high unemployment rate. I know there are many people who have lost their jobs. Yet I also know there are jobs available, because our company has been running ads almost every week looking for people — from entry-level employees to engineers. The problem we and other companies continue to face is finding the people with appropriate job skills.

Recently, my company, Apsco, Inc., was looking for an executive assistant with experience with computers and various software packages such as Microsoft Excel. We wanted someone who could import and export data and manipulate information using different fields.

We met with many people who said they were experienced, yet when tested, we learned they had not kept up with the technology. Some were taking classes and others were willing to learn. But we needed someone with the knowledge and experience to hit the ground running.

Lack of experience with newer software wasn’t the only issue we had with interviewees — people who were laid off from large companies were expecting large salaries. The truth is, those applicants may have been valuable enough to their former employers to earn what they were asking. But young people, just out of college, had more technical expertise, and were happy with entry-level salaries.

"Keeping up with the latest advances in the workplace isn’t easy. It’s not only workers who can fall behind. Entire businesses can, too. I know, because it happened to my company." -President, Air Power Systems Co., Larry Mocha,

Keeping up with the latest advances in the workplace isn’t easy. It’s not only workers who can fall behind. Entire businesses can, too. I know, because it happened to my company.

My small business, based in Tulsa, Okla., existed for many years in a comfort zone. In the late 1970s, our main business was making small kits for oil field truck manufacturers. Then the oil bust came, and in the mid-1980s, our markets slowly trickled away.

Although people thought the market would rebound quickly, we assumed the worst and looked for new industries to develop. We took our same product base and began offering it to construction truck manufacturers. We had to change our designs, redefine our marketing goals and develop a new strategy. We had to develop new relationships and new products. Throughout the 1980s, we worked to redefine the company. It took several years, but by the 1990s, we were chugging along.

In 2000, we did it again. I made a decision to take my company back to school and learn how to be an ISO-certified company. This is a standard for companies who bid on government contracts. I wasn’t aware of many small businesses that had gone to the expense to obtain the certification and train all their employees.

From conversations I had with other business owners, I knew it could be costly and complicate our processes. But I believed we would be better able to compete with ISO certification. I was inspired by firms such as Oklahoma-based Bama Companies, which worked to achieve quality goals and were very successful.

So, I hired someone to teach us quality and to lead us to certification. As we went through the process, sales started to surge. We completed training in 2004, and when the recession hit a few years later, we did it as a different company — one that had a stronger foundation and knew what to do to begin recovery.

Neither of these transformations were easy, but they were necessary in order to stay current and relevant in the marketplace.

And, just as businesses have to stay ahead of the curve, so do employees. I’ve seen too many job applicants who have worked in one job for years, and while they stayed comfortable, the world around them changed. Suddenly laid off, they had to put together a resume for the first time in ages. Now, they are finding out that their old skills are not enough. And often, someone like myself has to tell them.

In the end, it’s up to individual employees to ensure they stay on top of the latest technologies: by seeking out people who can teach them, asking employers if they can attend classes, or taking it upon themselves to find classes on their own.

But business owners can help. By investing in training, my employees are staying current in the workplace. I think they are learning by example that it’s necessary to shake things up once in a while in order to stay competitive.

Business owners would be doing a great service to the future employment pool if they challenged their employees to stay current.

Larry Mocha, president of Air Power Systems Co., is a member of CNBC.com's Small Business Council.

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