Jim Kline: Defining a skill set

by Jim Kline
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Commonly, when we talk about a job, we define the tasks to be performed, not the skills needed by the individual.
 

This year’s educational program at the 2016 International Baking Industry Exposition was nothing short of exceptional with 91 different sessions. The comprehensive program featured something for everyone — from cake decorating, 3-D cake design and preparing for the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) to enhancing energy efficiency, improving coaching skills, and understanding and embracing millennials. Beyond the essential industry updates necessary to maintaining our currency in the regulatory world and consumer trends that affect us all, there was a very common theme to this year’s program — skills enhancement.

A skill is a very important personal attribute. By definition, it requires the ability that comes from training, experience or practice. It denotes one’s ability to do something well, to have knowledge and expertise to perform a particular job or task. We are all employed for the skills we bring to our jobs and are accountable for our ability to apply and use these skills.

But describing a job is where the discussion of skills gets a bit messy. Commonly, when we talk about a job, we define the tasks to be performed, not the skills needed by the individual.

Here are some relatively common points, taken from actual job description postings found online, for various open positions in our industry. They include: “Plan and direct resources — manpower, ingredients and equipment — to ensure efficient production of consistent quality products. Effectively lead team members through empowerment, collaboration, support, motivation, flexibility and enthusiasm. Meet financial goals: manage costs / adhere to budget and seek innovative ways to reduce costs.” Another wants an individual to “perform training on quality and food safety, and ensure all equipment is maintained and operated according to established sanitary and housekeeping standards.”

The problem with these points is that they represent tasks to be managed and neglect to address the essential skills needed to perform the task. Employee performance reviews are often compared against their job standards — or tasks — and the objectives agreed to for that review period. It is only when the discussion turns to areas of opportunity or needs that the employee is to address within the next review period that any discussion of skills takes place.

But, what if the various tasks were evaluated for the skills required to perform that task, and then those skill levels were the point of the evaluation? Wouldn’t that result in a very different and meaningful discussion? Let’s consider another job description that searched for individuals who would “plan and direct resources — manpower, ingredients and equip — to ensure efficient production of consistent quality products.” It’s clear there are several key components to this statement: process expertise, planning capability, managing people, knowledge of the equipment, and knowledge of product quality standards.

However, the skills needed to be successful in performing this task would include a working knowledge of the baking processes and bakery production equipment. It would require the ability to compute and analyze production requirements and efficiency as well as create a production schedule for the process and labor. The qualified applicant should possess effective verbal and written communications and provide real time positive reinforcement and constructive criticism to personnel. The bakery, of course, would like to hire someone with a working knowledge of the product quality standards.

What about the job description that requires an applicant to be able to “perform training on quality and food safety”? This task requires additional skills on the part of the individual it is assigned to. It requires knowledge of good manufacturing practices and FSMA product quality, skills in the preparation of training materials/aids and effectiveness as a trainer.

Consider the different conversation you might have if you were to talk about the individual skills that their job required. Is the person a perfect “10” in a particular skill or maybe a “6” with room to improve?

Not only is the conversation different than when focused on tasks, but the ability to create an effective and measurable development program is now also possible because skills can be taught and learned.

And isn’t that the whole purpose of providing positive reinforcement and feedback on one’s performance, in coaching, in providing training? Isn’t it all about skills enhancement?

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