Closing the Skills Gap: How Educators and Employers Can Work Together
The skills gap—the difference between what students are taught in school and college and what employers are actually looking for when hiring recent graduates—is constantly growing. The National Federation of Independent Business found that 45 percent of small businesses in the U.S. were unable to find qualified applicants to fill job openings as of the first quarter of 2017. Findings from the UK Commission of Employment and Skills (UKCES) showed that one in four job vacancies last year were caused by the widening skills crisis across the UK, while “14 per cent of employers report skills gaps in their existing workforce.” Australia’s Department of Employment released a report last year detailing over forty occupations affected by skills shortages and recruitment difficulties nationwide.
With the fast rise of technology and the rapidly changing job landscape, there are many ideas for ways to close this gap. As the first installment in an ongoing interview series, we talked with people involved in hiring, training, and teaching about the skills they think are most lacking among graduates, and how educators and employers could work together to bridge the gap. We’d like to extend a big thanks to them for their insight and expertise, and for taking the time to speak with us.
Who We Asked
Alaina is a technical project manager for The PPC Guys, an agency specialising in pay-per-click advertising management. The PPC Guys create and manage the ads you see on networks like Google, Facebook, Bing, and Yahoo. Alaina has held many hiring roles in various companies and industries, and is also very passionate about helping college students with this issue. She has created successful paid internship programs at these companies that resulted in numerous full-time hires. She has facilitated workshops and spoken at universities about closing the gap between the skills business owners hire for and those taught by universities. It’s safe to say that she is very passionate about this topic.
Rosette is the creator of Zen Savvy Momma, a lifestyle and business Strategy consulting company, the founder of a brick-and-mortar preschool in Okinawa, Japan, and the publisher of Overseas Central, a virtual resource website for U.S. military and embassy expats. Rosette is a federal employee leveraging her broad knowledge and technical skills in early childhood education, education leadership, program management, human resources development and career counselling. She has also worked for both private and public-funded American universities.
Kristen is a former recruiter who worked in IT recruitment and executive search positions for start-ups. Despite loving the contact with people, Kristin realised she wanted to go in a different direction and transitioned to become a Holistic Health Coach.
Professor Arne Petermann is an entrepreneur and professor of entrepreneurship, and has been running his own businesses since 2008, mainly in the healthcare recruitment sector in Germany. His company, Linara, specialises in HR recruitment and management, consulting, and executive education.
Liz is a high school teacher of English literature, speech, career planning and college preparation at Colégio Dante Alighieri, São Paulo, Brazil. She also consults on presentations, investor pitching, and curriculum development for FluentPro, a communication and educational consulting business.
1. What are the top 5 skills you look for in potential employees?
While these skills can differ from industry to industry, there was a strong overlap in desirable skills. McBride lists “a hunger to learn about their industry, focus and the ability to listen, assimilate knowledge and then apply it” as some of the most important skills. Being a clear communicator, and having technical knowledge and creative problem solving skills were also among her most sought after skills.
Miller’s top skills include coaching ability, teamwork, strong work ethic, strong communication skills and independent initiative. Prof. Petermann emphasised how important taking responsibility for your own actions is, along with ambition, politeness, empathy, reliability, and “most importantly, being passionate” about their work.
Kristin Eyschen adds that, from a recruiter’s perspective, teamwork, self-motivation, reliability, handling pressure and adaptability are the most sought after skills.
2. Which skills are most lacking in employees today?
All our interviewees agreed that the skill most employees lacked was taking responsibility for their work. Alaina McBride adds that employees often don’t follow through: “They give up too easily and want to be told the correct answer.” She also thinks that “attention span and focus” are problematic, many employees don’t have the “ability to listen and then act on what they heard.”
Kristin Eyschen finds that employees often don’t handle pressure well. Team work and strong communication skills, passion for the job, attention span, focus, adaptability, and critical thinking were also named as skills that were lacking.
Prof. Petermann finds that many employees don’t really know themselves well enough, and “don’t know what they are passionate about”, which makes them less enthusiastic about their work.
3. What skills do you think employers look for in employees that aren’t typically cultivated during formal education?
“Formal education usually trains hard skills and fewer soft skills,” says Eyschen. “Whereas hard skills can most often be learned on the job, soft skills usually can’t be learned that easily. Personally, I think formal education should focus more on teaching soft skills, like how to work in a multicultural team and cultural awareness. Additionally, whatever people learn during formal education is very often outdated compared to the hard skills that are listed in job descriptions. For example, many universities teach programming languages that aren’t really used much nowadays. Meanwhile, Ruby on Rails, now a widely used programming language, is barely ever taught in university. Students don’t learn how to apply their knowledge to a real job and are often too constrained in their way of thinking instead of trying to adapt their skills.”
Eyschen helps people to develop communication skills, from facilitating high school students in creating self-identity and achieving educational development to preparing working professionals for their next endeavour. This involves coaching on how to present themselves effectively in various situations.
Alaina McBride adds, “We need our team members to be curious so that they will ask disruptive questions of our clients, like, ‘What are your top 3 business goals in priority order?’ They need to listen through the words clients are saying to understand the true intent. They also need to assimilate —to understand fully and remember what the client said—so that they can respond to it in any service business. And finally, be undyingly resourceful. Get the answers to the questions your client asked and don’t give up hunting for them.”
- Cultural awareness
- Presentation skills
4. Which skills in your industry do you think will be obsolete in 10 years?
All our interviewees agreed that the main change in skills over the next decade will be in relation to technology.
“Very low level programming jobs will be obsolete because many of them will be taken over by robots/computers,” says Eyschen. “However, you still need someone to run, understand, and manage these machines. So, I believe that the key to certain hard skills not becoming obsolete is to stay informed about the progression of these technologies and try to leverage this knowledge to your own advantage.
“In today’s technology environment, even the most popular, most seemingly secure technology skills can suddenly become obsolete. That’s just the way it is. No matter how in-demand your current skill set, you can never rest on your resume. That is why focusing on developing your soft skills might be much more valuable than trying to adapt your hard skills as much as possible.”
Teacher Liz Miller agrees, adding that, while she doesn’t think previous skills will become obsolete, “students and teachers will need to know more about technology and how to apply these old skills in new ways.”
McBride also predicts changes in technology and artificial intelligence to be the main factor in changing skill sets. In the advertising industry, she explains, “we saw the entire complex system of ad management reduced down to pieces of intelligent software that are sold directly to our clients by the advertising networks, and thus, making our entire industry obsolete.”
Obedoza thinks the skill of learning itself will “become obsolete because the modality of learning is not just face-to-face, but predominantly web-based. In my opinion, it has become one-sided which could be an advantage as international borders are not a hindrance for acquiring knowledge and skills. However, it is more important than ever for instructors delivering web-based courses to be more effective in addressing the various learning styles of students. If not, we are not gearing up for success.”
5. How can educators better prepare students to be job-ready when they graduate?
Professor Petermann thinks that educators should focus less on teaching knowledge and more on teaching problem-solving skills that can be applied to new situations and challenges, emphasising the need to “include intercultural experiences.”
Miller also agreed that teachers need to “foster creativity, thinking of things in new ways and developing the use of technological and 21st century skills.”
Kristin Eyschen adds that “usually educators focus on hard skills. Hard skills are learnt much faster on the actual job, while soft skills usually aren’t learned that easily.” She also thinks that “adapting the education system to the current and future needs of the job market, like artificial intelligence and virtual reality,” will be crucial.
McBride supports a very practical approach: “Job shadowing experiences, internships, part-time jobs—whatever it takes. They need to see business problems affecting companies. When they see the pain, they will be more interested in learning about solving those new and current problems. Or for virtual educational environments, set up conversations with business people where the students can contribute by offering services as a class or individually.”
6. Would you be willing to consider candidates with credentials from institutions like Udacity and Coursera?
“From a recruiter’s point of view, I’d be willing to consider these kind of credentials, together with a portfolio of projects that the candidates have already worked on by themselves,” says Eyschen. “From experience, I know that these candidates very often are much more driven and reliable than candidates with formal education. However, having worked for recruitment agencies, I know that most potential employers don’t consider these types of candidates and always prefer someone with a formal education over someone with credentials from other courses, unless the candidate already has previous experience working in a company for some time. Meaning that usually employers won’t hire these candidates to give them their first job after obtaining these credentials. For candidates to stand a chance, they would need to already have worked for a company.”
Rosette Obedoza agrees, adding that she’d accept these type of credentials “as supplementary to formal education. It shows her that the candidates are “sharpening the saw” and are “willing to improve themselves.”
Petermann and McBride would be happy to accept these types of credentials.
“Absolutely,” says McBride. “The beauty of our industry is that the truth is in the numbers. Our performance can be measured at the end of each day by closed loop reporting metrics that we put in place for our clients. That means that if a candidate can produce the results today’s clients need, they have an excellent chance at secure long-term employment.”
7. Do you have any other thoughts on how educators and/or employers might close the skills gap?
The overarching theme here was the need for educators and employers to work together and stay up-to-date with trends and technology: “We have these candidates who are ready to enter the workforce—it is our job as instructors to get them ready for the real world through competency-based learning, while employers must learn how to develop these candidates further once they join the companies or organisations” says Rosette Obedoza.
Petermann agrees that it is crucial for schools and businesses to work together. “Employers should be more engaged in education and offer internships and junior positions before people graduate.” He adds that, besides teaching knowledge and skills, there must be an emphasis on “teaching students means of self-awareness and self-leadership to enable them to choose a path suitable for their interests and passions.”
From a teacher’s point of view, Miller adds that “the greatest problem isn’t that teachers do not want to teach these skills, it is that they lack the resources, time, and support. Teacher training is essential so that teachers can help teach these 21st century skills, and it needs to be offered to teachers for free. Furthermore, schools need access to these technologies and other useful tools to help implement them in the classroom,” which could be a way for businesses to support schools.
Eyschen believes that educators need to “provide more real life training, less theory, more hands-on training. Formal education still mainly is theoretical. Most recent graduates don’t have the slightest idea what expects them in their first job. They are completely overwhelmed.” She adds, “Usually, only big consulting companies have recent graduate programmes and are prepared to receive them. However, not everyone wants to work in a consulting company, and other types of companies aren’t prepared for recent graduates at all; they think they should already have basic knowledge for the job, but usually they don’t. Employers therefore should be working closely together with educators, telling them exactly the kind of skills they need, and educators should adapt their programmes to that. Additionally, educators should have a specific onboarding programme for recent graduates, giving them the chance to have a smoother transition into working life.”
McBride offers some insight from her experience of creating internship programs: “Educators and employers need to communicate. Often. And they need to iterate, just like we do in the technology sector. This means pulling data from current job listings, including skills and experience requirements, and translating those requirements into syllabi. These course curricula need to be updated each year at minimum to retain relevancy.” She also recommends “forging long term relationships with companies in your community and network, from enterprise level companies to small businesses.”
McBride adds that “we’ve seen great results getting recent graduates into full-time roles from internship programs where students are supported with tools, such as a well-documented job description, a training program that compliments the job description, a supportive manager enrolled in the idea of closing the skills gap, frequent check-ins by a senior person at the workplace, and a school that ensures their interns are not allowed to be used in menial recurring tasks/roles.”
Do you have any ideas about closing the skills gap or how to better prepare graduates for the working world? Please share in the comments below.