Did the skills gap ever really exist?

Daily Briefing

Did the skills gap ever really exist?

Unemployment is a problem for job seekers and the economy alike. But a new study presented at the American Economic Association (AEA) conference suggests the skills gap may not be to blame.

The common narrative pins unemployment to a mismatch between technical skill requirements and employees’ actual skills. But the study suggests that, in reality, employer demands may be to blame, writes Kathryn Moody for HR Dive. In other words, the skills gap has been “largely self-inflicted,” she writes.

According to the AEA study, economic recessions allow employers to hire highly qualified talent from a large pool of applicants, raising the skill base. But when the economy heals and talent is less readily available, employers are left with few applicants who can meet their newly elevated requirements, creating the perception of a skills gap.

“There is never a moment where you don’t hear employers complaining they can’t find the skills they need,” says Heidi Shierholz, senior economist and director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute, of the cyclical nature of the market.

“I would say this is largely a natural, cyclical process,” says Katie Bardaro, lead economist at PayScale. “When can you afford to be choosey? When can you not?”

Shierholz adds that in today’s economy, the tight labor market and stagnant wage growth suggest that the gap isn’t entirely skills-based. “Whenever you hear someone say you can’t find workers with the skills that you need, always add: ‘at the wages that I want to pay,'” she says.

But the economic explanation for the skills gap doesn’t mean the skills gap doesn’t exist, argues Ravin Jesuthasan, managing director and global practice leader at Willis Towers Watson. “The skills gap is definitely real. It wasn’t invented by organizations,” he says. “That study does not at all diminish the fact that organizations are really struggling to fill roles.”

Jesuthasan argues that to close the skills gap, employers should focus on finding employees who can communicate well, think critically, and are willing to learn—qualities that, unlike tech skills, employers can’t necessarily teach. Organizations can then feel confident that their employees will be able to reskill as technology advances.

In a 2016 blog post, Ashley Litzenberger, an Associate Director with EAB, suggests that many students have developed the soft skills employers want, but “don’t see the connection between their coursework and the workplace or cannot articulate their professional skills.” As a result, they “struggle to convince employers that their major or specific courses will be relevant,” she writes.

To help solve this problem, Memorial University of Newfoundland asked faculty to identify the professional competencies that students are can expect to learn through their coursework. They found that simply adding professional competencies to course syllabi equips students with the vocabulary to communicate the value of their liberal arts education to employers.

And Indiana University Bloomington‘s Liberal Arts and Management Certificate program includes a dedicated career development course that teaches students how to connect the soft skills they acquire through their liberal arts education to specific industry needs (Moody, HR Dive, 3/4).

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