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The Skills Gap: Redefining the Problem, Reframing the Narrative, and Reinventing Partnerships

The EvoLLLution | The Skills Gap: Redefining the Problem, Reframing the Narrative, and Reinventing Partnerships
Without greater collaboration between employers and education providers, the pathway to closing the skills gap will remain slightly out of reach and American workers will remain wanting.

Emerging from the record-setting 2008 recession, conversations about economic recovery often focused on the apparent disconnect between jobs and workers. As businesses tried to fill key vacancies, they encountered a shortage of applicants with the right qualifications. Likewise, job seekers were stymied by the “jobless recovery” and the number of openings that required skills they did not possess.

Thus, the “skills gap” took hold in our economic vernacular. Despite the prevalence of this term in mass media and political discourse, there has been little consensus on its definition, significance, causes, and possible solutions.

Beyond the Skills Gap: Preparing College Students for Life and Work, a new book by Matthew T. Hora, assistant professor in the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Continuing Studies division, shines a light on this topic. Along with coauthors Ross J. Benbow and Amanda K. Oleson, Hora raises important questions about the skills gap as a paradigm for understanding contemporary workforce challenges.

The authors dig into the topic with a refreshingly empirical approach, questioning assumptions and challenging the notion that educational institutions are out of sync with employer needs. They offer a compelling argument that our workplaces and communities would benefit greatly if employees and citizens were armed with a broader range of 21st-century skills—competencies derived from a new approach to teaching and learning.

Hora and his coauthors acknowledge that occupational shortages exist in certain fields and in specific geographic regions. At the same time, they point to concurrent challenges associated with low wages and the move away from on-the-job training. Altogether, they paint a richer, more nuanced picture of the disconnect in our workforce.

In interviews with 145 educators and employers throughout Wisconsin, the authors heard about the need for workers who possess a strong work ethic, good problem-solving skills, the ability to communicate, and the desire to work effectively as part of a team. A person’s resumé might show the right educational credentials but may not reflect these so-called soft skills, which the authors rebrand as “habits of mind.” These habits may be hard to document, yet employers need people who come to work with narrowly defined technical expertise and these broader, non-technical, real-world competencies.

This is not the first time we’ve heard this assertion, especially as it relates to the value of a rich, broad liberal arts education. In this instance, the authors go the extra mile to describe the “skills infrastructure” necessary for students to acquire these habits of mind. As an engineer, I value this kind of systems approach. If we are going to construct educational experiences for college students that produce a more diverse skill set, we must pay careful attention to the underpinnings, which the authors identify as “leverage points”:

1. Career and academic advising: These resources ensure that students in high school and postsecondary institutions have access to labor market trends and local job opportunities, as well as programs that support their academic success, such as tutoring.

2. Authentic integrated curricula: Students learn and retain more knowledge when educational content is peppered with authentic, real-world situations and learning activities.

3. Skilled and supported educators: To achieve good learning outcomes and produce workers with 21st-century skills, we need educators that citizens and their elected officials value and support.

4. School-workplace partnerships: Several types of partnerships can facilitate and support the skills infrastructure, but enduring relationships and open communication require forethought and constant attention. With the right structure and effort, they can have considerable impact.

5. Workplace training: Although employers spend $177 billion annually on workplace training and tuition reimbursement, the majority of this money is spent on those who already have some type of postsecondary education. The authors suggest that the business community needs to take responsibility for developing its own labor force.

6. Skilled and supported trainers: When businesses take the initiative to invest in their own training programs, the people providing that instruction must be skilled and supported, in the same way that their postsecondary counterparts are prepared to imbue their learners with 21st-century habits of mind.

If you’ve ever remodeled a home, your contractor probably mentioned the importance of load-bearing walls. Similarly, the authors point to these leverage points as the key pillars of our labor force and our economy as a whole. They acknowledge that pieces of the infrastructure are in place, but emphasize the need for more state support and a systems-oriented vision.

Beyond the Skills Gap describes many active learning techniques that can be incorporated in secondary and postsecondary classrooms, as well as workplace training programs. It also makes the case that businesses and institutions of higher learning need to collaborate more effectively to close skills gaps. Once again, the authors go beyond broad recommendations, suggesting specific steps we can take to build effective partnerships:

1. Choose a partnership model that fits. All collaborations are not created equal. Limited partnerships let one organization direct the action, while coordinated partnerships move forward with centralized governance. Collaborative partnerships also involve consensus-based leadership. The type of partnership should be carefully matched to the nature of the task and the level of trust among prospective partners.

2. Get to know each other. Effective partnerships begin with careful planning, which must include honest communication about each organization’s goals and motivations. No hidden agendas allowed.

3. Engage in a careful design process. Think carefully about hierarchies, policies, governing tasks, accountability, and other features. Failure to chalk the lines clearly on the field of play will only ensure that someone steps out of bounds.

4. Cultivate boundary crossers. Implementing a successful partnership requires front-line staff and top leaders who are comfortable crossing organizational and cultural boundaries. Without such pathfinders who can learn the landscape of the other organizations involved, misunderstandings and misinterpretations ensue.

Together with the six leverage points, this partnership blueprint and other elements of the book provide a practical set of directions. It’s one thing to critique, but it’s another to offer solutions, and that’s exactly what Hora and his colleagues do.

Yes, there are mismatches in the workforce and the labor market, but Beyond the Skills Gap points to an even more significant gap: the need for more people who think creatively, act collaboratively and work reliably.

To close that gap, we educators must assess our traditional approaches to teaching and learning, embrace innovative techniques, and partner with industry. We citizens must think more broadly about our future, look beyond near-term problems, and invest in an educational infrastructure that supports a vibrant future for our nation.

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