Too many people are looking for work, and too many employers are unable to find qualified candidates to fill their jobs. Something is wrong. Many suggest that this is growing evidence of a “skills gap,” while others argue that it is completely overstated.
Do we have a skills gap? Yes, but it’s complicated.
Business will point to a failing educational system in which, despite efforts to improve, American students continue to underperform in comparison to students in other countries. Just as sobering, adults who have limited skills are finding that they are being replaced by technology.
It wasn’t long ago that the United States benefited from an industrial economy that provided employment opportunities for people of all skill sets. A high-school degree could help one get a job that, with hard work and savings, would allow them to live comfortably. However, the advances in technology and globalization changed everything. Today, the need for unskilled work is diminishing, and the jobs that do exist pay minimum wage, with limited opportunity for growth.
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There is growing demand for technicians, machinists and healthcare workers, but the industries are more sophisticated; some college education, though not necessarily a four-year degree, is required. The job opportunities for these “middle skill” workers are increasing, but the challenge is helping the workforce understand what skills are needed for the jobs that are available in their backyard.
Many communities are finding that there isn’t just a skills gap, one that is widening; there is an information gap as well. Thousands of students show up at colleges and universities every year without knowing where the job opportunities are; they don’t know what to study to meet the needs of business.
The business community is also responsible for this disconnect. All too often, employers blame the educational system because job applicants can’t do simple math or are lacking basic communication skills. It is true that not all schools are created equal, and that there is still much to be done to enhance grade-school education. However, business owners are also looking not only for people with advanced skill sets, but also for applicants who have job experience. Truth be told, many aren’t looking for recent college graduates.
The skills gap also relates to several other issues that include structural employment where jobs lost in one sector of the economy might be forever lost, while others grow at such a rapid pace that it is difficult to keep up.
Successful economies see a synergy between business, industry and education working together toward economic and social success. They share data to help educational institutions prepare a proper curriculum that teaches the skills needed for the jobs that are available. Some of these are workforce-development programs found in community colleges. Without focus and effective training, however, it will be difficult for communities to succeed. So businesses need to step up to the challenge.
For current employees, businesses could provide expanded career opportunities and cultivate education programs that propel these goals. Some companies already have their own tailor-made educational programs on site that foster and train employees to meet their unique business needs.
One thing more: Companies need to expand internships or apprenticeships. There is no substitute for actual work experience and training. Companies do not want to spend resources doing that anymore and they expect schools to pick up the slack. That’s wrong. A successful community is a shared responsibility.
Peter H. Cappelli, a professor of Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, would agree. “Many important reasons exist for being concerned about education, but seeing it as the equivalent of skill is certainly a mistake. One of the unfortunate consequences of using education as the proxy for skill is that schools, the providers of education, are then seen as the mechanism for dealing with skill problems, leaving on-the-job training and experience out of the story.”
The 21st-century economy presents serious challenges and great opportunities. If we learn to work as a tight-knit community that strategically invests in people and programs that are important, personal happiness and economic security surely will follow.