Filling the Right Gaps with the Right People

Special Focus : Who Should Solve the Skills Gap?
Life Skills October 26, 2015

The Gap(s)

For all the recent discussion around the skills gap, the numerous reports indicate that there are gaps, not a gap. A broad survey of the research divides skill gaps into two broad areas: the lack of technical skills, and the lack of transferable or ‘soft’ skills. 

On the technical skills plane, economists such as Levy and Murnane and David Autor identify the importance of non-routine expert thinking as routine skills become increasingly automated. The 2013 Careerbuilder talent gap report cites computer and mathematical positions as the most difficult to fill. And the ManpowerGroup 2015 report lists Sales Representative, Technician, and Engineer as among the most difficult positions to fill internationally. An employer survey by the UK Commission on Education and Skills reports that 64% of employers found the technical skills of employees lacking.

On the transferable skills plane, a 2014 Lumina Foundation and The Economist Intelligence Unit report focusing on U.S. industry finds that employers identify skills such as critical thinking and collaboration more important than technical skills associated with a job. Similarly, survey of U.S. executives by Adecco, a human resource consulting company, reports that 44% of executives believe new hires lack soft skills like communication and creativity. And, the same survey cited above by the UK Commission on Education and Skills reports that 41% of employers found communication skills lacking.

That both transferable and technical skills emerge as part of the skills gap is perhaps to be expected. After all, one of the main sources of the gap is how quickly jobs are changing. Even if it were possible to magically grant the requisite number of employees the necessary technical skills, those same technical skills may be obsolete in 5 years. Any solution to the skills gap thus needs to address both transferable and technical skills and, perhaps obviously, also needs to be able to develop along with the quickly changing skill demands. 

Vocational and Cultural Education

In some countries, the solution to the need for transferable skills need has given rise to an increase of postsecondary liberal arts and science education. Examples include Xinya College and Fudan College in China, Amsterdam University College in the Netherlands, O.P. Jindal Global University in India, Yale-NUS in Singapore and numerous others. Indeed, in the U.S. liberal arts and science education routinely invokes its ability to foster transferable skills.

But that solution may not be broadly accessible and may still leave out some technical skills. Traditionally, a vocational school and a liberal arts college seem irreconcilable: one centered on practical access and the other centered on elite cultural education. However, if instead of social hierarchy we think rather in terms of the learning outcomes liberal arts education proposes to impart, then a solution to the skills gap emerges. Research on the effects of liberal arts colleges on students’ critical thinking abilities found that gains were almost entirely mediated by instructional practices. Specifically, learning experiences that challenged students to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of their arguments and to look at an issue from a different perspective were most correlated with gains in critical thinking. In short: transferable skills are born more through method than content.

Improving pedagogy helps solve the transferable skill gap. To develop a long-term solution for technical skills it is necessary to avoid overspecialization. A study comparing the employment rates of those who received vocational or general education across 18 countries found that those who received general education were more likely to experience a steady increase in employability that ultimately eliminated the initial employability advantage of specialization. The trade-off was particularly pronounced in countries with established apprenticeship programs such as Denmark, Germany, and Sweden. As various specialized skills become obsolete, having a broad foundation enables one to learn new technical skills more quickly. 

To solve the skills gap, it’s time to merge vocational and cultural education.

So who should solve the skill gap? Who should take the job? To find those with the skills, a job description may prove useful. 

Job Description

The job has three parts: identify the technical skills in demand, design instruction that incorporates reflective learning, and teach.

Employers are best equipped to identify and assess the necessary technical skills. They have much to gain and they know the landscape of their industries the best. 

Educators are necessary to incorporate pedagogies that foster transferable skills such as reflective learning activities (the research above is only one example how this could be done). Providing students with practice in evaluating the strengths of various arguments could involve a debate on worker conditions that are part of a supply chain; in technology fields, it could entail discussing the argument of Kevin Kelly’s, founding executive editor of Wired magazine, that technology has its own inherent biases; healthcare services could evaluate the economic, social, and cultural sources of healthcare access disparities. Critical thinking doesn’t require Plato and Shakespeare. 

Those teaching could be drawn either from industry professionals, from professional educators, or from both. Since the required talent for this new job could come from any of these groups, there is no reason to uphold existing boundaries between education and industry. 

Hard to Find

The job description makes it clear that to solve the skills gap by merging vocational and cultural education collaboration is essential. We should remember that the survey results above identify collaboration and communication as the very skills that form the gap. But in this case the search isn’t for a single employee. For just as there are skills gaps more than a single gap, similarly we don’t need to find the one who will do the job of solving the gap, but the ones.

The views expressed by Austin are his own and do not represent Avenues.