Businesses continue to express frustration with their inability to find employees with the right combination of knowledge and skills. At the same time, unemployment remains high. Although this is not a new issue, it certainly has taken on increased urgency, even stridency, in the past year or two.
A new poll released by the Lumina Foundation and Gallup has explored the public’s perception of higher education in the United States and revealed some interesting results, including the fact that employers really don’t care much about where a new employee went to school, as long as they have relevant skills, technical competencies and knowledge for the job.
Employers Care about Skills, Not Schools
While much of the report focused on the general public, a number of findings demonstrated that there are systemic issues that will have to be overcome before there is a meeting of the minds between academia and business owners regarding what students need to succeed in life and in the workplace. For example, the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consultants extracted the following key insights from the full report:
- Employers value relevant skills and knowledge much more than where a degree, certification, or credential was conferred.
- A large perception gap persists between employers and academic institution leaders— 96 percent of chief academic officers said they were “extremely or somewhat confident” that their institution prepares students for the workplace, while only 11 percent of business leaders shared this view.
- The value Americans place on postsecondary education continues to grow. According to the report, 43 percent of Americans without a postsecondary education have reported researching their options for further education, yet 77 percent of Americans say that higher education remains unaffordable to everyone who needs it.
- Confidence in the value of online degrees and educational programs continues to grow among both the American public and employers. In the survey, 59 percent of business leaders said they would be more to likely hire a candidate with an online degree over a candidate with the same degree from a traditional postsecondary institution.
- There is a need for greater transparency when assessing the quality and value of a postsecondary education. Faculty quality, job placement after graduation, program costs, and graduation percentages are among the most important criteria to the American public when selecting a program or assessing its quality. However, Americans report that finding this information is often difficult.
Skills Gap is Global
The disparity between what employers want to see in new employees and the skills and knowledge new graduates bring to the job market is not an American phenomenon. In the United Kingdom, research suggests that it will take ten years to close their current skills gap. Australia’s Institute of Management released a study entitled Australia’s ‘Skills Gap’, in which 77% respondents (1,700 Australian executives and professionals) reported a skills gap and indicated that this gap is a critical concern. In India, demographics are very different, with much of the concern about a growing skills gap driven by the “hundreds of millions of young people who will flood its job markets in the next decade” Although the targeted skills are not the same across all regions (e.g. STEM in the UK and trades in India), the reality and impact of the skills gap is. So too is the growing belief that something has to change.
Bridging the Skills Gap from All Sides
Whether change occurs in the school system or in the workplace (or both), remains to be seen, but a number of interesting things are happening that might just shake things up a little, including both collaborations and interventions. Here are just a few examples:
- Tom Hudson, CEO of nth/works, a privately held $60 million company that makes parts and components for the appliance and automotive industries, has initiated his own apprenticeship program.
- One hundred American CEOs publicly committed to five initiatives designed to increase STEM participation, including investments in training and education and community outreach to increase interest in STEM careers at an early age and among girls/women.
- In Canada, the Canadian Council of Chief Executives commissioned a report on the educational system based on their belief that the only way to overcome the skills gap is to change the way young people are educated through the full arc of their educational life.
- The Business Council for Africa has launched a Diaspora Initiative to help address a management skills gap.
- JP Morgan Chase launched a $250 million training initiative called New Skills at Work, the largest ever private-sector effort aimed at addressing the skills gap in industries such as healthcare and advanced manufacturing.
- Cisco committed to investing in the development of 400,000 networking professionals over five years to address the IT skills gap in Asia Pacific. 
- The Community College of Rhode Island partners with local business to address skills gap while others bicker about who is to blame.
It is encouraging to see that some new ideas and approaches are being brought into play to tackle what is fast becoming one of the most challenging HR issues in the world. Finding workable solutions will take creativity and collaboration, but the upside potential is substantial for businesses, for job seekers and for educators, as graduates of all types of programs find themselves better prepared for what the world of work requires of them.
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