Managing headcount—and workforce planning overall—is one of HR's most important priorities, yet so many HR and talent acquisition (TA) leaders shy away from it.
"Very few TA organizations do it, because it's a very analytical process that scares HR," said Jeremy Eskenazi, SHRM-SCP, managing principal of Riviera Advisors, a Long Beach, Calif.-based talent acquisition consulting and training company. "It's perceived to be outside of HR's expertise, and it involves inputs that come from outside HR's ownership."
In many organizations, headcount forecasting is understood to be a financial and budgeting exercise owned by finance, Eskenazi said. "But because the function of headcount is not perceived to be owned by HR, and finance doesn't make it a priority, nobody owns it in the end."
The TA function's failure to successfully predict talent gaps and prepare for hiring needs can be chalked up to a lack of experience with workforce planning, a lack of capacity to undertake it and not understanding its benefits, said John Vlastelica, founder and managing director of Recruiting Toolbox, a global management consulting and training firm in Seattle.
"Most TA leaders operate in a transactional environment and unfortunately see their jobs as purely a fulfillment function," he said. "TA is dealing with so much need that it can't help but be reactive. There's not enough time spent with the business, outlining hiring goals, conducting quarterly business reviews, updating turnover forecasts, reviewing talent composition, going over succession planning, or starting proactive sourcing conversations."
The organizations that win at talent acquisition are those that have a pipeline of talent ready to choose from when they need it, Eskenazi said. "The only way to have that ability is to know what is coming up. If you don't know what's coming up, you're operating on assumptions."
Workforce planning connects recruiting, hiring, employee development and talent management by identifying needed skills, helping recruiters target the right candidates with those skills and assisting managers in charting the internal pathways for employee growth.
"Workforce planning is not just about hiring new people; it's [also] about the gaps between what you currently have and what you need," Eskenazi said. "If you do it right, you can discover who is capable of stepping into new roles with training and development, and who may not be able to stay on in a job because the required skillsets are changing. Workforce planning is about all movement—up, down, in, out or across the organization."
Creating a Workforce Plan
The process begins with information gathering. "You simply need to interview managers of individual workgroups inside your organization and then consolidate and analyze that data," Eskenazi said. HR should be the facilitator of the process and everyone who leads people should participate, he said.
Vlastelica outlined a top-to-bottom approach to collect the information. He advised HR to sit in on executive-level discussions on overall growth and industry challenges. "At the middle level there is a lot of work to be done on forecasting for expected growth and backfills and which job families and roles are most critical," he said. To represent the bottom, "HR should talk with individual hiring managers and department leaders about their talent priorities and workforce composition," he said.
Eskenazi explained that HR should ask department heads a series of standard questions:
How will the business impact you over the next six months? Twelve months? Twenty-four months?
What skills do you need to meet your goals and how does current staff meet that need?
Who is expected to be let go? Who is expected to remain? Who is getting promoted?
After gathering and tracking information about each department's talent inventory and their future talent requirements—using a spreadsheet or a workforce planning platform—it's time to conduct a gap analysis. Estimate what types of positions, people and competencies will be needed in the future to help the organization address talent gaps and then align necessary resources.
When presenting a final analysis to leadership, don't just repeat what you heard. Categorize the findings in a way that makes sense for talent acquisition, Vlastelica said.
"Forecasting is a little bit of science and a lot of art," he added. "It's a good opportunity to teach the business about how to think about talent acquisition, the ramp up time and resource cost to meet business need."
Organizations looking to be more agile in a rapidly changing environment should engage in regular workforce planning updates, Eskenazi said. "All you have to do is create the framework once, then update it every six months. Once you do it one time in a comprehensive way, it's far easier than having to start from scratch."
The workforce planning team should reach out routinely for insights from department and business line leaders to update and modify the plan based on hiring needs.
"It needs to be very flexible, because oftentimes the business's priorities change, even in a short time," Eskenazi said. "The business is constantly resetting—and faster than ever before."
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