This article is an extract of an interview given by Kevin Dwyer to Best Construction Monthly magazine on the issues facing businesses in rural Australia and how virtual learning can have an impact on attracting a diverse workforce.
1. Why is it so important to attract workers to rural areas?
The drain of rural workers, particularly young people (aged 15-24) to urban areas of Australia has been significant. The Australian Bureau of statistics reports that from 1996 to 2001 a net deficit of more than 91,000 young people to large population centres and capital cities out of a total population of 408,000 in 2001.
The mining boom in the last half of the decade reversed these trends in specific towns such as Paraburdoo and Mackay but did not reverse the overall trend. State governments, through positive regional policies have encouraged growth in high population centres, for example, Ballarat and Bendigo in Victoria, but declines in rural areas have continued.
The implication for farming communities and businesses of this drain of young talent has been an increased reliance on an aging population with little or no sense of renewal.
By contrast, when skilled mobile workers do move into rural and semi-rural communities the benefits of attracting skilled workers have been shown to be both economic and social in a study by Vitartas et al. Skilled workers inject money into a community by leasing or buying property and if they own a business, by employing local people. Skilled workers entering a community also often bring new skills and certainly bring fresh perspectives. In many cases they provide education and training to local workers thereby increasing the capacity of the local workforce.
2. How can companies encourage this?
The keys to attracting new talent are their perception of the rewards, opportunity and the organisation itself.
Companies can improve perceptions of rewards not only by providing improved compensation but by improving retirement benefits, health cover and annual leave provisions.
However, by improving the opportunities provided, they may reduce their compensation levels dramatically. Opportunities are seen to be greater with organisations having a stable business with good growth prospects, but more importantly with those who practice meritocracy and provide development opportunities and career opportunities. Development opportunities come in the form of cross-functional projects, training, on-the-job coaching and mentoring. Career opportunities are perceived to be more real where learning pathways are established and career pathways are clear and supported by robust performance management approach and succession planning.
The drivers of perception of the organisation will be different for different individuals. The drivers include elements such as diversity, technological edge, market share, brand strength, ethics, social responsibility and empowerment. The elements of ethics, diversity and empowerment can be powerful counters to any weaknesses in elements such as brand strength and market share.
The composition of elements that attract talent to a company in a rural community are not different to those that attract talent to a company in an urban community. However, in most cases, there is a need to provide a stronger counterbalance to the perceived negatives of a rural location such as isolation and reduction in services than there is their home location. This may be accomplished by a combination of compensation, opportunity and the nature of the organisation. The stronger the latter two elements, the lower is the level of compensation benefits required to balance the perceived negatives.
3. How can businesses retain staff once they are in the rural workforce?
The keys to retaining talent are their perceptions of the people, the work and the organisation itself.
The most important element of people’s perception of the people they work with is the quality and approach of those in leadership positions. According to a 2004 Employee Engagement Survey by the Corporate Leadership Council the most important attributes of leaders which drive discretionary efforts of their people in order are:
• Commitment to diversity
• Demonstrates honesty and integrity
• Adapts to changing circumstances
• Clearly articulates organisational goals
• Possesses job skills
Discretionary effort is a corollary of an individual’s intent to stay or leave an organisation. It is reasonable to assert therefore that these attributes contribute directly to the likelihood of retaining talent.
The work itself is also a strong determinant of retention of talent. The rural location itself may often be perceived as a negative element of work due to reduced services and the feelings of isolation away from family and friends. Business travel and work-life balance may provide a counter balance to any negative perceptions about the location, however, recognition and alignment of the job an employee does with their personal interests are likely to be more powerful.
4. Why is virtual learning important to the workforce?
Well-designed virtual learning provides a multi-modal approach matching the diversity of learning styles prevalent in organisations. Virtual learning channels include real time video, recorded video (webinar), wikis for collaborative learning, databases of information, ‘how to’ sheets and articles of topics of interest, forums based around formal areas of practice or informal areas of common interest and instant messaging. They may also include private forums and instant messaging capability for mentees and mentors to collaborate in a confidential environment.
A strong advantage of virtual learning is that learning can place at the time of need rather than tying learning to an event. In traditional training, the program day is selected and people attend on the set day. Within six weeks if they have not used what they have learned, they retain less than 12% of what they learnt at the event. If they use what they have learnt or have other interventions which cause them to remember, use or repurpose what they learnt at the event they may recall up to 80% of what they learnt. Virtual learning can both aid event based learning providing the interventions to help people recall and remember or even more effectively, when coupled with a mentoring approach, replace event based learning altogether.
Virtual learning has the advantages of:
• Time and place independence (24×7)
• No need to travel to the place of learning
• Time lapse between messages allows for reflection
• Speakers of with English as a second language have added time to read and compose answers
• Questions can be asked without waiting for a ‘turn’
• It allows all students to have a voice without the need to fight for ‘airtime’, as in a face-to-face situation
• Many to many interaction may enhance peer learning
• Answers to questions can be seen by all – and discussed.
• Discussion is potentially richer than in a face-to-face classroom setting
• Messages are archived centrally providing a database of interactions which can be revisited.
• Collaboration tools such as wikis encourage debate about topics of interest
5. How can virtual learning be used to encourage and retain rural workers?
As I mentioned before, the reputation for providing good training and development of staff is an important element of attracting talent in any organisation. We also know that empowerment is an important element in retaining talent. People need to be competent before they can be empowered.
In rural locations it can be difficult to provide good training and development environment as most training organisations are based in large population centres or the capital cities. Even in large organisations with a rural base such as mining or construction companies, other than operational training, the major training centres are capital city based.
The travel, even to a regional centre for training, may take several hours there and back. Travel affects work-life balance for the employee and increases cash costs and opportunity costs for the employer.
Virtual learning, using modern technologies can provide access to high quality training without the disruption and cost of travelling to a face-to-face event.
6. Are many companies embracing this technology?
From my personal experience in Australia rural TAFE colleges are taking up the provision of video based training as are banks taking up a combination of real time video coupled with the use of instant messaging and ‘rooms’ private to the learner and the tutor and ‘rooms’ open to all.
The explosion in webinars available free and for a fee demonstrates that many organisations are using the technology at least for marketing purposes.
One organisation in the US has harnessed the full power of current technology providing mentoring for talented middle managers. EQmentor (http://www.eqmentor.com) uses confidential forums and SMS for contact between a mentee and mentor supplemented by access to a database of ‘how to’ tools that the mentor may use to provide real time assistance to the mentee without moving from non-directional coaching to directional coaching. The mentee can also access videos, quotes, articles and company information from the Gale database. Learning activities can be designed by the mentor to utilise wikis which may be contributed to by other mentees and mentors, forums which may be started by a mentee or a mentor on a particular topic, chats which are structured webinar like events set for a particular time and contributions of good sources of learning from mentors and mentees. Learning in this model is multi modal, one-to-one, one-to-many, synchronous and asynchronous all from the one provider. The choice is made by the learner and the mentor.
7. Why is diversity in the workplace particularly important to rural areas?
Having a more diverse workforce provides a much greater range of perspectives on an opportunity thereby providing a richer base for innovation and reducing the potential for group-think. In rural communities, the pool of talent tends to be narrower in its range of upbringing and hence the perspectives held of problems and opportunities tend to be narrower potentially leading to less innovation and more group think.
Overtly valuing diversity in companies in rural communities allows them to attract from a much wider and deeper talent pool.
Diversity should be seen not just from, say, cultural backgrounds but from gender, age, thinking styles, management styles, technical versus generalist skills and frontline versus management positions.
8. Is it difficult for rural employers to encourage diversity, or is this coming to prominence?
The difficulty lies primarily with the judgement of leaders that diversity is not worth the effort in making sure that it is valued and that policies, processes and procedures are put in place and managed to ensure diversity of thought is valued.
For example, attracting and retaining female engineers to remote mine and construction sites requires companies to provide elements already discussed such as personal development, career development and compensation to trade off against perceived location drawbacks. They must provide a meritorious environment in which talent and performance are the keys to opportunities to succeed and where access to learning and development is easy and positively encouraged. Virtual learning capability is an important adjunct to provide easy access to learning and development.
Companies can also promote diversity through networks of people inside the company who work to build communities within the larger community to ensure that people of different backgrounds or orientations have places to go for support when needed and to share experiences and learning.
These kinds of actions can be taken whether a company is based in a rural location or a high population centre or capital city.
9. In the future, how will this change?
Governments at state and federal level are increasing understanding the need for and taking action to develop regional centres to reduce the infrastructure burden on capital cities. The development of regional and rural friendly policies to support the mining boom is slowly becoming more normal. National infrastructure projects in transport and telecommunication will increase access of rural areas to services. For example, provision of high speed internet access to rural communities will have the impact of reducing perceived isolation by increasing access to a wide range of real time services such as medical diagnosis previously requiring travel to a high population area.
The impact of these policy changes will in their own right, increase diversity in the rural work place by encouraging people to stay rather than move and reducing the perceived trade off that many people contemplating moving to rural areas make.
Skilled migration coupled with the attraction of the local economic multiplier impact of the mining boom is also reshaping the diversity of some specific rural communities.
However, the key to reshaping diversity still lies with the leadership of companies in rural communities and urban communities. In a recent survey conducted by Change Factory, diversity was the least important factor in managing the most important factors driving the key issues of respondents; attracting and retaining talent. For companies of greater than 5000 employees, diversity was a more important issue but still not within the top three.
1 Peter Vitartas, Southern Cross University and Martin Homisan, Mackay Whitsunday Regional Economic Development Corporation