The skills gap is a "myth," according to this economist

Unemployment is a problem for job seekers and the economy alike—but one researcher argues that administrators and policymakers are barking up the wrong tree.

While the common narrative pins rising rates of unemployment to a mismatch between technical skill requirements and low-quality employees, the skills gap story is a "myth," writes Andrew Weaver for MIT Technology Review.

Instead, we must reframe the issue to include not just employee skills deficits, but also employer skill demands, argues Weaver, assistant professor of labor economics at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Weaver has conducted several nationally representative skills surveys targeting manufacturing, IT help desks, and diagnostic laboratories. Respondents were asked what skills employers demand and whether the high skill levels demanded are difficult to find.

Weaver identifies several key takeaways from his research.

Takeaway 1: Hiring problems are not as widespread as many claim and often depend on the industry.

Only 15% of IT help-desk managers reported extended vacancies in technician positions, while just over a quarter of lab-technician managers cited one long-term vacancy, according to Weaver's surveys. In addition, Weaver finds the hiring challenges in the high-tech industry are not significantly greater than other industries.

Takeaway 2: There is no silver bullet skill that guarantees employment.

There is not one specific STEM skill or soft skill that employees need, but a combination of skills that is unique to both the industry and position, Weaver writes.

For example, while it may seem necessary for students to learn programming to compete in the tech industry, Weaver found that only 15% of IT help-desk managers ask for programming experience among technician candidates. Instead, these managers look for a combination of operation systems knowledge and writing skills, he writes.

Soft skills, hard skills, missing skills—how to prepare students for employment

Takeaway 3: The most common skill gap was for reading and writing.

Hiring difficulties were most consistently associated with a lack of high-level reading and writing skills. This result challenges traditional arguments that blame unemployment on the absence of STEM skills or "soft skills" like cooperation and teamwork, writes Weaver.

He highlights three ways colleges can better prepare students for employment:

  • Tailor course recommendations to particular job requirements, rather than recommending generic skill investments;
  • Help students develop strong reading and writing skills; and
  • Cultivate industry partnerships to coordinate employer-provided training and get a sense of hiring needs.

(Weaver, MIT Technology Review, 8/28).

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