It's not my fault!: Who's really to blame for the skills gap

No one can agree on what skills are missing

As the Great Recession began to heal, economists noticed that job openings were on the rise—but so was unemployment. Employers had jobs available, but they weren't getting filled.

These troubling economic statistics are facts.

What's less clear is the root cause of the gap and who should be responsible for fixing it, Dan Berrett reports for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Argument 1: Colleges are responsible

This is the most common interpretation of the skills gap, Berrett writes.

Supporters of this interpretation often encourage colleges to bridge the gap by enrolling more students and creating academic programs that better align to employer needs.

But this raises another question: Exactly what is it that employers need? Sometimes very specific technical skills gaps arise in narrow geographic locations, such as semiconductor manufacturer IM Flash's need for graduates trained in mechatronics. But in surveys, employers tend to report that their most critical skills gaps are for soft skills such as communication. Other times, employers simply say they need more degrees 

The first step to solving the gap? Defining the gap

Argument 2: Employers are to blame

Skills gap skeptics argue employers have unreasonable or vague expectations. There's research to support this argument, like a recent Burning Glass study that found nearly two-thirds of job postings for executive assistant and executive secretary positions require a bachelor's degree, but only 19% of the employees who held these jobs at the time had such credentials. 

Some economists pointed to the fact that wages were not rising, even in geographic areas where the gaps were widest. Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman called the skills gap a "zombie idea" that had outlived its usefulness—and that was in 2014.

Even when colleges do partner with local employers to tackle a skills gap, "things still might not work out as planned," Berrett writes.

Argument 3: Both sides are to blame

This, Berrett argues, is most likely the case—and accordingly, everyone should be pulling their weight to solve the issue.

"Employers, colleges, job seekers, and families have a responsibility to close those gaps," he writes.

Jason A. Tyszko, the executive director of the Center for Education and Workforce at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, says "We have a system that operates backwards. Educators develop curriculum without much input from employers. And while colleges often say their graduates... leave their institutions with strong soft skills, employers have no way of really judging for themselves if this is true... Degrees are so opaque."

He suggests experiential-learning opportunities and industry-sponsored innovation challenges can help give employers more transparency into graduates' capabilities (Berrett, Chronicle of Higher Education, 1/22).

An in-depth look at two successful industry partnerships—and what makes them successful

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