Science Matters: Invest in Skill Building and Watch Potential Grow

Know where the safety equipment is. Don’t eat or drink on the job. Wear the right clothes. And please don’t casually pour chemicals down the drain. Such precautions may sound elementary, but these important and fundamental lab safety practices must be mastered or quality down the line could suffer.

By Alan Edwards

Know where the safety equipment is. Don’t eat or drink on the job. Wear the right clothes. And please don’t casually pour chemicals down the drain.

Such precautions may sound elementary, but these important and fundamental lab safety practices must be mastered or quality down the line could suffer. Call them the “basics” of running a lab—the kinds of things that have to be taken care of before the real work can begin.

But once you’ve done that, it may be time to consider some other “basics” of running your lab. One of the most important basics— knowing how to effectively raise the skill level of your staff—may not seem as critical as making sure people know how to handle chemicals with care. Your employees’ success in this area, though, as well as your ability to foster it, is every bit as critical to the future success and viability of your lab.

Consider the reality first when it comes to running any type of business in today’s extremely competitive and constantly evolving work environment. More and more, the success of a company is tied to its capacity to identify and respond to changes quickly, with minimal disruption to operations or profit. Cycle time across nearly all aspects of business has been reduced by sophisticated technology, making speed and agility more critical to market success.

The scenario is no different in the business of running today’s modern laboratories, and having a tangible plan for growing the skill level of employees is the key to building versatility and being able to face these business situations head-on.

The “basics” of skill building are also important because of the specific challenges facing labs and the science industry as a whole. The basics include more project-based work that requires multiple skill sets for longer— or shorter—terms. Economic fluctuations can often drive inconsistent funding and customer demand that require either quick thinking or a totally new course of action. And there are constant innovations in scientific technology and research and development that require employees to continually develop new skill sets.

In fact, “versatilibility,” defined as the ability to be versatile, can apply to an employee, to a specific job function, or to any organization or business. Organizations are adapting to change, and for many, the concept of “versatilibility” is increasingly relevant to their strategic implementation of effective workforce solutions.

Developing a plan for facilitating the growth of skills among employees requires managers to first make sure they know all the challenges facing their particular labs. Do you know what’s happening in your unique marketplace? Are you aware of the business trends of the customers the lab serves? Are you operating in a way that allows you to be fully responsive to all the trends affecting how the lab executes its core competencies and its work for customers’ specialized needs? And are you confident that you can optimize the output of new technologies? Being able to optimize all the technologies available through specialized skill sets is particularly critical, since doing so will enable the lab to take advantage of new revenue streams.

The answers to these questions will identify the most critical skills your employees need to retain and keep up to date, as well as the ones they might still need to learn or improve. They will also identify your own path toward helping your employees take advantage of their skills and continually build new ones.

Though a one-size-fits-all plan won’t work for every lab, more than likely your plan will include some sort of ongoing training system that will consistently engage your employees and allow them to take control of their skill sets and careers. This approach is gaining momentum, especially in the science world where contingent labor is on the rise and potential employees are increasingly realizing that they’ve got to be able to arrive at a job ready to go.

After identifying the most relevant skills needed in your own lab, take advantage of the Internet to feed that knowledge to your employees. Technology- oriented online communities are a great way to figure out what employees want to learn as well, and you can use this tool to push them to other resources online that can help them build their skills in those areas. Or create a news feed that is sent to employees on a regular basis that will keep them interested in always pursuing a higher skill set.

Companies that provide contingent labor are already doing these things and more, realizing that the employees they provide must already possess the skills to get the job done in the wake of dwindling resources and cutbacks on in-house training. Labs that are able to integrate contingent labor into their overall workforce gain both the value of these built-in programs and highly qualified professionals who can add to the organization’s “versatilibility.”

Make investing in your employees’ skills a priority, and watch your lab’s overall quality, output and revenue grow.

Alan Edwards is senior director and product leader of the Kelly Services® Americas Products Group—Science. Kelly Services, Inc., a leader in providing workforce solutions, is headquartered in Troy, Michigan. For more information, visit You can also follow Alan on Linkedin (

Published In

Laboratory Etiquette Magazine Issue Cover
Laboratory Etiquette

Published: May 9, 2011

Cover Story

Laboratory Etiquette

Many lab managers still remember them from their student days—a handful of hastily stapled printouts sternly titled “Laboratory etiquette—Acceptable standards of conduct.” Those were rules to live by, and the smallest violation landed a budding laboratory scientist in front of the ticked-off chief instructor.