The Skill Gap: A Real or Imagined Problem?

Several recent articles have explored the skills gap, generally defined as the difference between the competencies that employers seek in current and prospective workers and those that workers actually have.
Surveys and experts suggest that a wide gap exists between the skills sought and those possessed.  For example, writing in the US News & World Report, Ben Baden reports that economists blame part of the persistent unemployment in the United States on a skills gap, adding that numerous surveys say that employers “are having trouble finding applicants who fit the requirements for open positions. “
To support this claim, Baden cites three surveys, all suggesting that employers feel that a gap exists between the jobs they have and the skills of available workers:
  • A Manufacturing Institute survey that “found that 67 percent of more than 1,100 manufacturers reported a moderate to severe shortage of available, qualified workers. Of those surveyed, 56 percent said they anticipate the shortage will grow over the next three to five years. Overall, the study found that about 5 percent of current jobs, or up to 600,000 jobs, remain unfilled due to a lack of qualified candidates.”
  • A survey of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which found that “40 percent of the members of the Inc. 500 (a group of the country’s fastest-growing companies) reported that the biggest impediment to further expanding their companies is ‘finding qualified people.’”
  • A survey by the Career Advisory Board at DeVry University, which found that “72 percent of job seekers are overconfident and do not possess the necessary skills for the positions they’re applying for, while only 14 percent of hiring managers believe job seekers have the qualities needed for their open spots.”
Lacey Johnson, a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education, reports similar concerns in yet another survey by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, which found that “More than half of employers said finding qualified applicants is difficult, and just under half thought students should receive specific workplace training rather than a more broad-based education.”
In contrast, a recent survey conducted by the global consulting firm Accenture found that one of the reasons that workers don’t have the skills that employers seek is that employers aren’t providing those skills.

“The majority of workers (55 percent) report that they are under pressure to develop additional skills to succeed in their current and future jobs, but only 21 percent say they have acquired new skills through company-provided formal training during the past five years, according to a study released Wednesday by Accenture. For the study, Accenture surveyed 1,088 employed and unemployed workers and found that 52 percent have added technology skills in the past five years, but many hadn’t updated other in-demand skills such as problem solving (31 percent), analytical skills (26 percent), and managerial skills (21 percent).

Most workers surveyed (63 percent) say they have developed new skills through on-the-job experience. Less than half of respondents (49 percent) report that their employer does a good job of providing a clear understanding of the skills needed for different roles and career paths.

Many workers in this study “have taken it upon themselves to develop skills over time. More than two-thirds of workers (68 percent) believe it is their responsibility to update their skills to ensure their value in current and future roles.”

Indeed, empirical evidence suggests that employers have significantly reduced their expenditures on training (see my 2010 articles with Ingy Bakir on the subject) over the past two decades.
Wharton School professor Peter Capelli agrees, noting that:

Even with unemployment hovering around 9%, companies are grousing that they can’t find skilled workers, and filling a job can take months of hunting.
Employers are quick to lay blame. Schools aren’t giving kids the right kind of training. The government isn’t letting in enough high-skill immigrants. The list goes on and on.
But I believe that the real culprits are the employers themselves.
With an abundance of workers to choose from, employers are demanding more of job candidates than ever before. They want prospective workers to be able to fill a role right away, without any training or ramp-up time.

But this is all speculation.

Before we point fingers, re-jig university curricula, and push current and future workers to invest their own money in developing skills,  we need to verify that a skills gap really does exist.

Huh?  If you’re read this far, you’ve seen extensive evidence about the skills gap.
But this evidence only presents beliefs about a skills gap.  All of the evidence has solely been collected using surveys.  Such surveys, used with large numbers of  participants working in varieties of industries and positions, only identify what people choose to report about their skills gaps.
But they don’t actually go into an organization and assess that actual match between the competencies sought by employers and those possessed by job applicants.  As reported earlier in this blog, evidence suggests that some employers are immediately dismissing candidates based on the ethnic origins of their names when reviewing applications.
More significantly, have employers accurately identified the competencies needed in their jobs?  Many methods exist–but nearly all are very time consuming.  For example, conducting a DACUM (a process for identifying the skills needed in a job, then translating that information into a training curriculum) takes several weeks.  Many jobs suffer from scope creep–in which someone takes on more responsibility as they become more experienced and proficient in a job; are employers expecting replacement workers to have the same levels of skill as the departing ones had at departure–or when the worker started?
Furthermore, truly assessing the skills of workers and job candidates is similarly time consuming.  Conducting a thorough skills assessment with individual workers can involve assessing as many as 150 individual skills.  Demonstrating this, through a portfolio or competency-based exam, takes hours or days, both in terms of preparation and assessment.
Rarely do employers or workers actually want to participate in such extensive, time-consuming assessments.
But these are the only ways to actually assess whether the expectations of employers and the skills or workers are in or out of sync with one another.  And that’s important, because much investment is made on the belief of a skills gap, when the problem might be more accurately defined as unrealistic expectations or, as one employer put it when speaking at a 2008 event of the Work and Learning Knowledge Centre in Canada:  “Is it that we don’t have enough truck drivers, or we simply lack truck drivers willing to work for just $16 an hour?”This isn’t to say that the skills gap is imaginary, or that schools are doing a superb job preparing students for the workforce, or that employees are taking significant levels of initiative in preparing themselves for the workforce.What it is saying, however, is that most of the evidence is based on quickly acquired opinions.  To figure out the real problem and exactly how employers, workers, and schools need to align their efforts requires a lot more digging than surveys that merely scratch the surface of the problem.  And if the results of this digging are similar to those of digging about other issues, the situation will look a lot more complex than it does at the surface.

About idmodelsandprocesses

Exploring, reporting, teaching, and advising on learning and communication for the workplace and consumers.
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