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Who Is At Fault for the Skills Gap? December 7, 2012

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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The quick answer is probably everyone.  But there are many factors at work, and I haven’t yet seen anyone who is willing and able to offer a balanced view.  Most of the commentators who care to weigh in on this and similar topics have a distinct political agenda to grind (I mean you, Felix Salmon).  On the other hand, I want truth, such as it is, although I also understand that truth with a capital T is very difficult to achieve.

By skills gap, of course, I mean that despite a system of secondary and higher education that fuels an ever-increasing number of graduates by burning large piles of dollar bills, employers still claim they can’t find the skills they need to meet their business needs.  The gap between what people are willing and able to do, and what employers are willing to pay for, is generally thought of as one of skills versus market demand.

Let’s start at the beginning.  Us, or at least most of us.  We don’t keep up on our skills, whether technical, administrative, or interpersonal.  We don’t read, and often we don’t learn, either on the job or independently.  In many cases, we latch onto the systems and processes of our current employer, and don’t know how to let go when they no longer apply.  We don’t keep up our professional network, and in many cases haven’t even given a thought to establishing one.  We search for employment inefficiently and often laughably naively.

Second, the education establishment.  There are really decent corners of our education system.  At a broad brush, my experiences with community and technical college systems have been nothing less than outstanding.  They tend to be intellectually rigorous yet focused on applying learning in careers.

But most public school systems are hopeless at even imparting daily living skills, let alone career skills.  It’s mostly not the fault of individuals or even individual schools, but rather that of curricula and strategic purpose that became frozen in time decades ago.  Most universities are even worse, with little understanding of what is needed to begin a career, and no desire to acquire that understanding.

Last, employers.  I recognize that the days when people like me could graduate college with no discernible work skills and parlay a semblance of intelligence into a decent career and top-ten percent income are long over, but over the last decade or so employers decided that they wanted to fill a slot rather than hire a person.

That’s a bad approach.  I stay at my current employer, despite being able to command higher salaries elsewhere, largely because I like the people, like the work, and feel I fit in.  That’s a conscious decision on my part.  Employers delude themselves into believing that they can meet their strategic goals by hiring someone with five years of C# coding, or other specific technical skill.  Unless you plan on showing them the door at the end of a one year project, you want to look at much more than two or three specific skill sets.

Oh, and you don’t want to pay for anything more than that specific skill set, for the useful life of that skill.  And in the aggregate, you can probably afford a person, rather than a limited skill.

But it’s much more complex than that.  The days where a strong back and willingness to work could result in a middle-class blue collar career started disappearing when I graduated high school, and today are long gone.  The responsibility is on all of us, and none of us accept that challenge.  And all of us suffer because we don’t believe it’s our problem.

Here are some links that might be relevant.  These links have others that may provide still more illumination (or not).

Employers may be aggravating the skills gap:  http://www.nbcnews.com/business/economywatch/employers-may-be-aggravating-skills-gap-1C7450821

The Hiring Paradox, from HRExaminer:  http://hrexaminer.com/the-hiring-paradox-skills-gap-1/

We Have Created Our Own Shortage of People:  http://www.jrothman.com/blog/htp/2012/12/we-have-created-our-own-shortage-of-people.html

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