Skills Gap Deniers Suffer From A Narrow Definition of What the Skills Gap Is

Posted by Penn Foster on June 26, 2019

By now most corporations recognize that the United States is facing a skills gap. Yet there are still some people who refuse to believe the skills gap exists. While it's tempting to claim that these skills gap deniers have some political agenda that can only succeed if the skills gap is proven false, the reality is that most people who don't believe in the skills gap are looking at the problem too narrowly.

The disagreement is understandable. Read a dozen articles on the skills gap and you'll come away with at least six definitions of what the skills gap is. Some don't even bother to define it, assuming a clear, shared understanding that simply doesn't exist.

To avoid that stumbling block, here is a definition to work from: the term skills gap defines the mismatch between the skills employers want employees to have and what applicants are actually able to do.

Pick apart that definition and you'll find some problems. How do employers decide what skills they want employees to have? How do employers know what applicants can do? Do applicants really need all of the skills employers think they do?

Answering these questions gives employers the tools they need to start closing the skills gap. But first, here's a closer look at how employers think about the problem.

What is the skills gap

A Learning House survey found that more than half of employers believe there is a skills gap. Business leaders from a wide range of industries said they struggled to fill open positions. These industries include: technology and IT, management, operations, engineering, sales, finance and accounting, customer service, and even human resources.

The rapid pace of technological innovation is one factor widening the skills gap. Businesses want to stay on the leading edge of technical development, even in traditionally non-technical fields like sales and customer service. This requires employees with strong technical skills.

Yet, a survey by the World Economic Forum found that only 27% of small companies and 29% of large companies believe they have the talent they need to support digital innovation in the coming years.

The other major area of concern is soft skills. Employers look for candidates who can communicate, collaborate, problem solve and think creatively. Yet those skills aren't always easy to find. Blame technology again, or point the finger at educational systems focused more on helping students pass tests than on challenging them to abstract thought. Either way, employers believe candidates are lacking soft skills. In a LinkedIn survey, 58% of hiring managers said the lack of soft skills among candidates is "limiting their company's productivity."

Employers aren't the only ones worried about the skills gap. US workers also believe they have a problem. In an Udemy survey 84% of workers said there is a skills gap and 39% feel personally affected by it.

The US government is a believer too. Governing agencies and policy makers from the US Chamber of Commerce to the White House have issued warnings and conducted studies about the skills gap.

Rebutting skills gap deniers

Again, the skills gap is the mismatch between the skills employers want employees to have and what applicants are actually able to do. That definition poses a few problems. First, how do employers decide what skills they want employees to have?

Some skills gap deniers have said that the skills gap was manufactured, accidentally or on purpose depending on who's doing the denying, by employers after the great recession. Their argument hinges on the fact that job requirements often mirror changes in the economy. When unemployment is high and there are more job seekers, employers can afford to raise their standards. For example, by demanding that every applicant have a four-year degree.

That certainly happened after the 2008 recession. It took almost 10 years and a rock-bottom unemployment rate for employers to really start rethinking these requirements. Their slowness to respond to changing conditions has contributed to the skills gap. But more and more companies are dropping degree requirements. For example, Google, Hilton, Whole Foods, Home Depot, and Nordstrom just to name a few.

Next, do applicants really need all of the skills employers think they do? Once again, the recession casts a long shadow. During and immediately after the recession, employers could hold out for someone with years of experience and a long list of skills.

Today, it's faster and likely more cost effective to hire an interested candidate who is eager to learn and then train them in the skills they need. Some employers have shied away from this strategy, mostly out of fear. It looks like lowering the bar, when in reality it's widening the playing field.

Finally, how do employers know what applicants can do? Some deniers point the finger at HR. They say that human resources departments have taken automation to unreasonable extremes. In this scenario, HR departments are rejecting resumes that don't have the exact keywords they're looking for and are slow to update keyword lists to match the real needs of the position.

An over-reliance on automation can prevent good candidates from making it through to the interview stage. The problem isn't necessarily that candidates don't have the right skills, it's that they're not framing them in the language used by HR professionals. This communication breakdown has contributed to the skills gap.

Understanding the skills gap

This skills gap conversation started as a discussion of how technology has changed work, but it's evolved into something broader. Saying that employees don't have the right skills minimizes the true scope of the problem. Skills gap naysayers have pointed out the holes in this simplistic idea.

More than anything, the skills gap is a communication problem. It's perpetuated by a failure of communication between employers, candidates, colleges and government agencies.

How can employers articulate their needs? Do they even know what they need? How can students verify that the programs they're paying for will help them build essential skills? How can schools know if their programs are shaping employable graduates? Only through open, continuous communication.

The major complicating factor is the speed of change. Traditional education works on a long timeline. It takes students an average of 4 years to earn a bachelor's, an additional one or two for a masters, and two more for a Ph.D. By the time a student graduates, the industry in which they hope to work could have changed drastically.

Seen through this lens, the skills gap is real and ripe for correction. Here are a few things employers can do to help close the skills gap:

  • Remove restrictive degree requirements
  • Understand the specific skills workers need to succeed at your company
  • Train employees continuously
  • Maintain open lines of communication with schools to support valuable education
  • Encourage government policy makers to support adult education in all its forms

How to close the skills gap

The skills gap does exist. But that's not even the important point. What's most important is the awareness that by strengthening communication between employers, schools, government entities and job seekers, we can strengthen talent pipelines. Whether you believe the skills gap exists or not, we can all agree that strengthening talent pipelines is a good thing.

By partnering with education providers like Penn Foster, employers can open lines of communication to help close the skills gap.