The Evolution of the Controversial Skills Gap

March 14, 2019

Takeaways

Though the idea of the skills gap is controversial, the ongoing gap that exists is real and requires action.
The skills gap is now a larger conversation about the underlying cracks in the foundation of the talent marketplace.

Both the White House and business community agree that the skills gap, a source of longstanding debate in the United States, is real and requires action. There is a bloc of opinion that refuses to acknowledge that the skills gap has ever been a legitimate issue; some would say it simply doesn’t exist.  

Matthew Yglesias of Vox and Matt O’Brien of the Washington Post, are among many who have recently spotlighted and written about a new research paper presented in January at the American Economics Association’s annual conference. They make the argument that because employers change their requirements for jobs to directly deal with high unemployment and the growing volume of resumes joblessness produces, a skills gap does not exist. This new research is not inaccurate, but the lines critics are trying to draw from it are misleading, and false.

While it is accurate that, in times of high unemployment, employers add more credentials and qualifications to job descriptions, this practice is only indirectly related to the skills gap. Employers historically add these requirements because it reduces the number of applications they get, narrowing the field to those applicants who are most qualified for the jobs available.

This is an outdated practice that may make it easier to filter through applications, but it will not guarantee a hire with the right skill-sets aligned to the employer’s talent needs. 

The Evolution of the "Skills Gap"

Over the last decade we have seen the challenges associated with what has been called the "skills gap" gain new dimensions given changes in workplace development, jobs, and in-demand skills in the 21st century economy.

One significant evolution is that the focus of the skills gap conversation is no longer only on a lack of specialized skills available in the talent marketplace. The concept of the skills gap has evolved. Now the focus is on addressing the underlying cracks we have identified in the foundation of the talent marketplace that causes those talent gaps to exist.

In dissecting the skills gap, we’ve identified that employers struggle to communicate their hiring needs to the education community. We also know that traditional education and career pathways weren’t designed to develop skills for the fast-changing market we have today, or to match the speed of changing industry requirements that we are seeing in today's economy.

Maura Reynolds, senior editor for Politico, reports that the education community needs disruption. She's right, but the education community is only one stakeholder. What we need is a consistent and high-quality way for the education community to effectively collaborate with employers to develop talent that aligns with the needs of our quickly changing economy.

In line with a recent report from the World Economic Forum, Strategies for the New Economy, there are a few critical shifts that all stakeholders of the talent marketplace must make together, many of which are already in development:

  1. Map the skills content of jobs and make it open, machine-readable data to achieve real-time signaling of labor market changes.
  2. Design coherent and portable credentials.
  3. Develop a new approach to talent management that includes effective partnerships and real career pathways.
  4. Align skills taxonomies between the business and education communities.

These approaches require employers to have a little more skin in the game, but it’s worth it. When a worker’s skills are more aligned to the needs of the market, they are more quickly hired, they are more valuable to the employer, and they are better positioned for future promotion.

In both prosperous and challenging times, there is an ongoing gap that stands in the way of opportunity for many. Maybe we need to stop calling it the skills gap, or we need to collectively redefine what the gap is. No matter what we call it, we can all agree that the time for solving it is now.

This post was originally published in Forbes.