What’s being done to bridge the skills gap?

By Erin Eagan

It seems we are finally past the point of wondering, “Does a middle-skills gap exist in America?” Instead, we’re now asking, “How can we start to bridge America’s skills gap?”

In a survey of 2,000 employers conducted by Matt Ferguson, CEO of CareerBuilder and co-author of The Talent Equation, results showed that 80% are concerned about a skills gap, but only 40% are doing anything about it.

Eight out of 10 employers concerned about a skills gap should erase any lingering doubt as to whether the issue exists. A better question to ask is why are only four out of 10 companies doing anything about it with so much at stake? According to CareerBuilder, the average company can lose more than $14,000 for every job that stays open for three months or longer.

Even though they’re the ones losing hundreds of dollars a day, the onus can’t solely be on the employers. While it makes the most sense that they lead the charge in closing the gap, the problem has become far too complex to be solved without a group effort involving employers, educators and government.

The result of a perfect storm

The onset of America’s middle-skills gap goes back roughly 50 years as technological advances began to outpace the educational system. Industries started moving forward, but schools have been slow to catch up in producing adequately trained graduates. In the last two decades alone, the gap has widened significantly. These middle-skills jobs now comprise the largest segment of the US labor force at approximately 60%.

While there are still over five million Americans who are unemployed, the answer to closing the skills gap isn’t as simple as just tapping into those individuals. Nowhere is the gap larger than in fields like manufacturing, health care and IT, where jobs require very specific post-secondary training.

The widening of the skills gap has been the result of the perfect storm of events taking place:

1. A change in demographics. Baby Boomers have been retiring from these middle-skills positions for years and there haven’t been as many young people coming in to replace them. The once-abundant pipeline to the labor market has all but dried up. Instead, the generations that have followed the boomers have been encouraged by parents, teachers and counselors to get a four-year college degree, without considering these types of high-paying, blue-collar jobs.

2. The mindset that middle-skills careers are more susceptible to layoffs in an economic downturn. This unfounded mindset needs to be put to rest. In fact, the argument could be made that given the current skills gap, these types of in-demand, middle-skills employees may be much harder to let go in the future because of how hard they are to find. Certain industries, and skills, can and will transcend a future recession.

3. Curriculums haven’t adapted to changing technologies. Because of recent advancements, many of today’s jobs didn’t even exist 25 years ago. Yet the same curriculum is still being taught, especially in traditional, four-year institutions where change doesn’t come easy. Consequently, for the last few decades, droves of students have been graduating with an outdated skill set.

4. Educational institutions lack the proper resources. New technologies require learning new skills that many schools don’t teach due to lack of money, time, qualified instructors and other key resources. Budget cuts across the board have only compounded the problem, especially with a scarcity of technical education courses in high school. 

5. There is a disconnect between employers and educational institutions. Right now, what employers need and what is being taught is a mismatch. Because communication and collaboration has been lacking, schools are producing graduates who aren’t fulfilling specific demands.

It’s going to take a collaborative effort

Only in the past few years has the skills gap issue been getting the attention it deserves. While on a national level, action and funding has been scarce, at the local level there are steps being taken to address the issue. Without much federal funding, individual communities are going to have to continue thinking of creative solutions similar to these:

1. Strategic partnerships between employers and technical colleges. With employers being desperately in demand of trained workers, it makes the most sense that they take a lead role in partnering with local technical colleges to share exactly what skills are needed, what types of courses should be taught and how best to get students from classroom to employment.

Wisconsin is one of the leaders in terms of addressing the skills gap, and its tech colleges are right at the forefront. All 16 WTCS institutions have formed partnerships or have taken other unique approaches to help close the gap. In fact, in 2012, a $3.8 million Wisconsin Workforce Partnership Grant was created by the Wisconsin Covenant Foundation, Inc. uniting businesses across the State with five of Wisconsin’s technical colleges to fill jobs.

2. Apprenticeship programs. Apprenticeships are a proven training model where high-quality, paid, work-based learning is combined with related classroom instruction. The benefit to employers is cost savings, along with high retention rates.

3. Employers investing in their workers. Learning new skills shouldn’t stop upon graduation. Companies need to continue to educate and train their current employees to stay relevant and help them advance to the next level. Career pathways is a relatively new effort to address this. In partnership with employers, technical colleges stack manageable pieces of employer-approved learning for high-demand jobs. Employers ensure students qualify for the jobs they’ve been trained to do. The advantage is that it introduces workers who have limited skills to earn small awards for their experience in education and work. With each step a student achieves, they are more qualified and have potential to earn higher wages.

4. Increase career and technical education (CTE) offerings in high school. CTE courses, where students learn a skill or trade such as auto repair, information technology and welding, expose students to new careers and give them a chance to explore their passions in hands-on fields. The real-world skills they learn allow them to graduate with much more than just a high school diploma; often a jump start on a technical college major.

5. Encouragement from parents. Why send your son or daughter off to a four-year university when that may not be the right fit for them? As parents, you owe it to your children to expose them to a wide variety of possible interests and careers. You don’t want to make the expensive mistake of pushing him or her into a four-year degree when they were actually interested in a skilled trade. Parents should provide children with options, but then get out of the way. A child who makes their own decision about his or her future is more likely to have long-term happiness.

Employers needing to fill positions can no longer afford to wait for today’s workforce to catch up. These companies are bleeding hundreds of dollars a day in the meantime. While employers need to be the ones to lead the charge, it’s going to take a collaborative effort before we see the gap between the skills available and the needs of employers begin to narrow.

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