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I interviewed Larry Werner a couple of years ago, who was then managing director of Ketchum Public Relations, and among the subjects we talked about were the increasingly important role technology was playing in his business and the challenge the agency was encountering finding qualified personnel.

“We always say that our assets go up and down the elevator every day,” Werner told me.

He wasn’t referring to the computers.

While the labor picture has eased up somewhat since I interviewed Werner, labor force analysts predict a chronic shortage of workers that’s only going to worsen. The Image Gap Group, a consortium of economic development agencies in the region, cites research predicting that 100,000 jobs will go begging in Southwestern Pennsylvania by 2008.

That’s a little less than the population of Allentown, Pa.

Throughout much of the industrial age, the smart business owner took care of the mechanical equipment because a breakdown meant an interruption in production and a crimp in profits. Replacement costs for machinery were high, while labor was relatively inexpensive and portable.

Contrast that with today’s knowledge-based economy. Send an employee packing or lose her to a competitor or another industry, and it might end up costing you $1,000 the first day. Factor in recruitment and training costs and productivity and opportunity losses, and the tab mounts pretty quickly.

By comparison, throw a brand new computer through an open fourth-story window, and it costs you about $1,000 to replace it.

So it seems to follow that using Industrial Age thinking when it comes to your work force just won’t do. If you’re an employer that relies heavily on bright, creative people who can come up with solutions that help you turn a profit, you know the value of knowledge workers.

You know that replacing employees isn’t as simple as a trip to the parts bin. Jobs at every level are requiring skills that go beyond spinning nuts onto bolts.

It’s probably tempting to install new technology in your business that promises productivity gains, cost savings and increased profitability. Applied appropriately, technology can bring all of those.

But the real key to success in the knowledge era is having the right people to make the tech bells and whistles ring and blow. If your employees go down the elevator tonight and don’t come back up tomorrow, the technology won’t do you much good.

Ask Larry Werner.