February 2011 | Commentary | In Perspective

Investing in Human Infrastructure

Tags: Education & Careers

Roads, rails, and bridges are not the only kind of infrastructure worth investing in. What about people?

President Obama was greeted with a simple, one-word message when he visited the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: jobs. The Administration and, in fact, corporate America, have struggled with when, where, and how much to invest in projects that will fuel job creation. The usual refrain? Infrastructure.

The proposed tax incentive for business investment in plants and equipment shifts the focus from public works to private development. Both have their merits, but there’s more to infrastructure than just asphalt, concrete, and steel.

During any economic downturn, companies cut investments in people. When the corporate top-line starts to tighten, the squeeze migrates down through each budget line item to try to add a drop or two of fresh juice to the bottom line. Early victims often include travel and training.

Membership and participation in professional associations and attendance at conferences, workshops, and events fall under that umbrella. Just at the time companies are looking for fresh ideas and suggestions to improve productivity, eliminate waste, cut costs, enhance customer service, and tweak a multitude of other best practices, they cut off the conduit to those resources.

Business executives attend educational events and workshops only partly for the content. “What they crave is the networking that will help them find solutions and share ideas,” says one educator.

Two forms of education occur at these industry and academic events, and only one centers on the formal presentations. The result, however, is orders of magnitude greater than passively sitting at a desk and reviewing numbers, searching for another budget item to cut.

Operating at a Loss

True, program organizers at universities and professional associations suffer their own top-line contraction when event attendance drops. But those who have devoted their careers to developing human resources recognize that the greater loss is the potential contribution more motivated and better-informed logistics professionals can make to their organizations and supply chain partners.

Companies are desperately looking for relationship managers to coordinate supply chain efforts across functions and disciplines, and within and outside the enterprise. Meanwhile, highly talented managers and executives are anxious to take on that challenge.

But when the message is to make another cut, that creativity is channeled in a less-productive direction. Recruiters tell us dissatisfaction is growing, not only with cuts in salary and benefits, but also with the ability to produce real, lasting results.

Plenty of strong talent is already in place; they only need some encouragement and a few additional tools to effect significant change. Consider investing in that bit of human infrastructure. The yield could be greater stability, reduced risk, and continued growth. In the end, that investment can produce a more sustainable future and the job growth everyone craves.

An investment in education can unlock the energy and ingenuity that produce results.