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HBR: Skills Shortage Overstated

August 28, 2014

I was pleased to read an article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) that undercut the notion that public education and education in general are the reason employers are upset over the skills that prospective employees bring to the workplace. James Bessen’s HBR blog post misleadingly titled “Employers Aren’t Just Whining the Skills Gap is Real“, he refutes the notion that higher compensation or better high school or technical education is needed to close the very real (in his estimate) skills gap. Instead, he emphasizes that the skills employers are looking for are the ability to learn on the job. Here’s a paragraph from the post that describes the skills that are missing from the employers’ perspective:

Employers using new technologies need to base hiring decisions not just on education, but also on the non-cognitive skills that allow some people to excel at learning on the job; they need to design pay structures to retain workers who do learn, yet not to encumber employee mobility and knowledge sharing, which are often key to informal learning; and they need to design business models that enable workers to learn effectively on the job (seethis example). Policy makers also need to think differently about skills, encouraging, for example, industry certification programs for new skills and partnerships between community colleges and local employers.

In sum, degrees are less important than demonstrated ability to learn on the job, to learn from colleagues, and to gather information from outside of the business sphere. One other assertion that Besse makes repeatedly: it is difficult to measure these essential skills. He implies that the traditional metrics for education, degrees and coursework are NOT the issue… instead the “soft skills” that elude measurement ultimately determine who the top 10% of the workforce is and, consequently, who the highest paid employees are.

After reading this piece, I left the following comment:

As a retired school administrator who is frustrated with the media’s characterization of education being the problem, I was pleased to read that “…there are not major shortages of workers with basic reading and math skills or of workers with engineering and technical training” and not surprised to read that “...the skills required to work with new technologies are hard to measure.” The USDOE and legislators who are using standardized achievement test as the bases for rating education and “preparing students for the 21st Century workforce” need to read this to understand that traditional metrics (not to mention traditional SCHOOLING) will not address the needs of employers who are decrying the preparation of entry level employees.


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