America's colleges are getting a bad rap on the skills gap

In-demand skills actually are not very complex, research says

America's colleges are failing students, creating a devastating skills gap in the labor market—or are they?

Writing in the Boston Globe, David Scharfenberg examines the evidence and finds the skills gap could be more myth than reality.

Concern that the demand for highly skilled workers is outstripping the education system's ability to produce them—the so-called skills gap—is a bipartisan issue, Scharfenberg says.

Prominent presidential candidates like Republican Jeb Bush and Democrat Hillary Clinton have targeted the skills gap in their campaigns. And recent surveys paint an image of employers desperate for highly skilled workers.

Narrative and reality

But economists say the complaint has been around for decades—and that the skills employers need are not actually that complex. "Ask any chief executive if he has trouble finding workers, and he will say yes," notes Sharfenberg.

For instance, two Massachusetts Institute of Technology labor economists surveyed manufacturers in 2012 and 2013 about what skills they needed in workers. Most were seeking basic reading and math skills.

An 'experience gap' could be a larger problem than the 'skills gap'

Another report from Boston Consulting Group in 2013 found that the country's manufacturing workforce only lacked about 80,000 highly skilled workers—or less than 1% of the total. "Right now, there are, for most jobs, enough skilled people," said Harold Sirkin, who led the study.

Why the skills gap?

The skills gap is really about finding a politically safe answer to much larger problems, according to economists like former US Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers. It is a way to avoid addressing larger issues like income inequality and stimulating economic growth, he says.

Michael Handel, a sociologist who has consulted with the World Bank, argues "there's an element of mythmaking," when people talk about the skills gap. "I can pull reports up from 10 years ago, from 20 years ago, from 35 years ago that say the same thing: 'We've got a skills mismatch, we're in dire shape.'"

A looming problem

Some worry that the real skills gap will be revealed when baby boomers retire, says Barry Bluestone, director of Northeastern University's Kitty and Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy. In Massachusetts in 2000, 41% of the manufacturing workforce was at least 45 years old. A decade later that level grew to almost 54%, Bluestone says.

"There is a skills gap. And I think it's going to get a lot worse," he says (Scharfenberg, Boston Globe, 8/2).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.


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