Driven largely by the “Great Recession” and subsequent political policies to boost the economy, a potentially novel affliction came to light. This blight most frequently bears the name of the “skills gap,” and remains the bane of efforts for hiring managers and students alike. The most general definition refers to the difference in the knowledge, skills, and abilities required for open jobs and those possessed by the unemployed population. In the 2015 Talent Shortage Survey, The Manpower Group found 40% of surveyed employers in the U.S. had difficulties in hiring due to a perceived lack of available talent. Further, 53% of small business owners reported a significant challenge in recruiting non-managerial employees. Finally, a survey of Inc. 5000 companies found 76% of CEOs said acquiring qualified employees was a major problem. In years past, this issue has been well reported in Manufacturing, but today the concern spans sectors more ubiquitously. Opposing viewpoints have emerged debating the root cause of a skills gap.

The primary case against the labor side rests on the mismatch between supply and demand for educated employees. The workforce lacks the correct graduates. In a piece on the skills gap, The U.S. Department of Labor reported that too many students elect to pursue low demand fields such as Philosophy, Fine Arts, History, and English while too few choose high demand fields like Engineering, Consulting, Finance, and Healthcare. In addition, schooling is to blame for lacking the education of soft skills. Communication, collaboration, problem solving, and critical thinking are not adequately represented at most institutions. Metrics from the BLS tend to support the existence of a skills gap with US unemployment at roughly 11 million and available positions around 4 million last summer. Lastly, technical change creates demand for skills that education does not instruct, and therefore, labor markets don’t supply. Curriculum updates cannot adapt as quickly as technology advances.

On the other hand, changes in firm behavior over the years could possibly have created a skills gap. Company expectations have grown while labor force skills have remained constant. In addition, businesses increasingly use machines to screen resumes and cover letters for key words and requirements such that a majority of documents receive no human review. Marginally disqualified candidates get filtered out. Prior to the use of resume scanning technology, an individual may have received an interview due to a qualification not represented in the machine’s criteria. Slight discrepancies, such as a candidate with nine years of relevant experience instead of ten, can eliminate the individual’s application. Furthermore, employers increasingly favor “on-the-job” training rather than risk investing in an employee who may leave in less than a year. Potentially high performing individuals remain relatively untrained. The skills gap may have always been present, but decreased training has made it more apparent. Articles from major business publications found no major shortages of workers with basic reading and math skills or of workers with engineering and technical training, which further suggests the issue rests on the company side.

From my perspective as a recent college graduate and new hire at Source One Management Services, I believe there is truth to both sides of the argument. Many of my collegiate peers were studying low demand fields and are now unable to find employment. Further, acquaintances learning in higher demand areas failed to gather skills and secure employment upon graduation. Their resumes lack relevant internship and work experience. Schooling neglects soft skills, and formal training for entry level new hires rarely occurs. Instead, “on-the-job” training has developed in a case of reverse causality. The workforce switches jobs more frequently now, so companies are less motivated to invest in employees, and employees are even more motivated to switch jobs in order to keep developing. “On-the-job” training can be effective if done right. However, it can easily lead to poor performance, bad habits, and high turnover.

The skills gap can be crossed by recent graduates and other job seekers by applying to positions with ample development opportunities. Websites like Glassdoor, Indeed, and Vault should be used to screen companies. Internships notoriously neglect the development of young professionals and instead assign them grunt work fostering minimal skills development, and little context to the overall project’s purpose. By evaluating employers, low quality internship offerings will be avoided. In addition, writing one’s resume to match the machine’s lens as well as the human eye will yield an increase in responses. Finally, recent graduates should improve soft skills by taking courses, seeking mentors, and volunteering.
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Anthony Ott

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