Penn profs deliver messages at Davos conference on jobs and growth

Posted: January 31, 2013

DAVOS, Switzerland - Be optimistic, and invest more in hiring and training young people, instead of complaining about their lack of skills.

That was, in short, the message from two Philadelphia academics who came to the World Economic Forum here last week.

Peter Cappelli and Katherine Klein were part of a delegation from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School that came to this ski resort. They advised the world's most influential business leaders - the CEOs of Citibank, Bank of America, Coca-Cola, and Goldman Sachs, to name just a few - on how to achieve economic growth and job creation.

"The business leaders here shouldn't complain as much about the lack of skilled workers," said Cappelli, a professor of management. He addressed a crowd on the topic of youth unemployment in the United States and elsewhere, and said he was disappointed in participants' attitudes on the issue.

"Many employers complain they can't fill their vacancies, while millions of young people don't find a job," Cappelli said. "But it's not the fault of the so-called skills gap. It is the task of company managers to train young people and get rid of the gap."

According to Cappelli, business leaders across the world increasingly set the bar too high for young people entering the workforce. He offered, as an example, demanding several years of experience for many of their companies' vacancies while not offering any starter jobs.

"Employers these days want the colleges and universities to do the job training for them, but that's not our role," Cappelli said. "We have to foster creativity and allow for a broader, more academic formation."

Cappelli said that offering practical degrees tailored to specific industries - such as, say, the pharmaceutical business - put students on a slippery slope.

"For our companies, it's of course great to have employees fresh from college ready to work in one of Philadelphia's biggest industries," he said. "But what if these companies go bankrupt? Then you risk ending up without a job and with a pile of student debt."

Klein, also a Penn professor of management, was more optimistic about her interaction with the world's rich and famous. "I felt a bit like I was there to give them a pep talk," she said. Klein spoke to business leaders on the importance of psychological resilience.

"I told them that people are remarkably resilient after going through extreme adversity in their personal lives, and that they [executives of major companies] can do this too," Klein said.

Managing partners at Bain & Co. and A.T. Kearney, two of the largest consulting firms in the world, were among those to nod in approval, Klein said.


Peter Vanham is a business journalist based in Belgium.

 

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