Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the shortage of 21st-century skills was the biggest threat to national economic prosperity. The mantra of the last decade has been, “We need to fix the skills gap.”
The skill gap problem hasn’t gone away; in many ways, the COVID-19 crisis could deepen it. The labor market dislocations, the decimation of industries like retail and hospitality, and the disruption to education may lead to new skills mismatches. But a big part of the solution is in the hands of employers: providing the training needed for the workers our economy needs.
Pre-pandemic, employers were often too quick to point the finger of blame on the education system for failing to deliver curricula that kept up with the rapid pace of technology, for failing to prepare young people with “work-ready” soft skills for the future of work and for failing to develop the strong work ethic that drives a competitive economy.
That argument was one-sided and simplistic then, and it continues to be. It’s not that there isn’t a skill gap, but it’s too easy to frame the problem as one of low-quality labor supply, blaming students and our education system. It’s a two-way street: For our economies to start thriving again, employers need to take responsibility to bridge what is, to a large extent, a training gap.
Let’s consider the following:
Which Employability Skills Are Young People Missing?
We hear a lot about the lack of soft skills like problem-solving, critical thinking, innovation and creativity, the ability to deal with complexity and ambiguity, and communication.
But isn’t the traditional university degree course — with its emphasis on critical thinking, debating, viewing issues from multiple angles and communicating clearly — designed to teach many of these social skills? When I completed my degree in political science in the late 1980s, I had to compose arguments about issues, respond to objections, develop the capacity to imagine being in someone else’s shoes, listen critically and consider points of view that might call into question my own fundamental beliefs. I was also involved in social and sports clubs and societies that helped build teamwork and conflict resolution skills.
So, what’s happened? Is the university degree experience different than in years past? Are students different?
With regard to the first question, there is probably some truth in the claim that for many courses, institutions emphasize maintaining academic rigor and lag behind in the application of that knowledge and in developing those crucial interpersonal skills.
According to Dr. Eric Frazer, author of “The Psychology of Top Talent,” and part-time lecturer at Yale School of Medicine, there’s also another problem: He believes students are less engaged in extracurricular activities of campus life, because for this generation of digital natives, their social connections predominately occur online. Instead of joining a club, they join an app or an online group. Members of this generation have come to believe the that the best way to solve a problem is go to their smartphone and “Google” a solution.
Employers also say that there is a dearth in technical skills among graduates. According to a 2019 national employer survey carried out by the Department of Education in the U.K., “over four-fifths (84%) of skill-shortage vacancies were at least partially caused by a lack of technical or practical skills,” most commonly due to a lack of the specialist skills or knowledge needed to perform a role.
Part of the problem seems to be that many technical degree courses can’t keep up with the rapid pace of technological change facing most industries. By the time someone graduates, his or her knowledge is already out of date.
In view of these challenges, universities need to be doing more to provide industry-driven education that prepares young people for work — but they need support from employers to help build talent pools with the skills that are relevant to today’s business needs. So, what’s the solution?
Industry Partnerships With Universities Are Key to Building Future-ready Talent Pools
We need far more employer involvement not just in curriculum design but also in providing students with opportunities for practical, hands-on experience like work placements — a critical solution to work readiness.
Greater collaboration with universities can also help employers better appreciate that they can’t just publish a job description, say they need a degree and assume that the degree is a proxy for everything they want, from showing up on time to collaboration to articulating ideas to responding to critical feedback in a thoughtful way. No graduate is ever going to be “the finished article.” Once in the workplace, to hit the ground running, they’re going to need ongoing training.
Are We Really Talking About a Training Gap Rather Than a Skills Gap?
On-the-job training insights indicate that we need much more industry effort. In the U.K., according to the employer survey, only 27% of employers provided work placements for students in 2019 — down from the already low percentage of 30% in 2016.
When it comes to workforce training, spending in the U.K. has been stagnant over the past few years. We don’t have full year labor statistics for 2020 yet, but the last set of results for 2019 (from the employer survey) show a 5% decline from 2017 to 2019. In North America, corporate spending on L&D had been increasing, but incrementally since 2015, only to drop by 2% in 2020 to $165.3 billion.
Furthermore, a recent global workforce study carried out by IBM found that half of businesses have no skills development strategy in place.
The looming prospect of a pandemic-induced economic global downturn and risks that spook companies into being more protective of their cash positions could mean their scaling back on pipeline and workforce training — something we must avoid at all cost. Moving forward, solutions have to be joint, built on and driven by strong collaboration among government, industry and educational providers.