Beyond the Skills Gap

I first learned of Beyond the Skills Gap in an October, 2016 article in Inside Higher Ed. In January, my small book club (Ann McClellan, Pat Cantor, and I) decided to read and discuss it. I think this book is required reading for anyone concerned about higher education. It speaks to much of what we’re trying to do at Plymouth State University with the cluster initiative and does so in an engaging, research-supported way.

The authors live and work in Wisconsin and embarked on the research for this book before governor Scott Walker began to dismantle public higher education in that state. The purpose of the book is to provide “a systems-oriented roadmap for cultivating students’ twenty-first century habits of mind based on the expertise and insights of practitioners and scholars in the field.” That one sentence highlights what I most admire about the book. The first thing is that the authors view education as a system, a collection of interrelated parts, and present their findings in a logical manner from the perspective of many different parts of the system. The second thing is that authors review, explain, and summarize many studies of employer and faculty insights and attitudes about higher education. They also did a lot of primary research, talking to employers and faculty members from around the state. The final thing that I admire is that the book is focused on “twenty-first century habits of mind.” More about that in a bit.

The primary narrative used by Walker’s administration to justify the dismantling of long-standing traditions and structures in higher ed is the idea of a “skills gap.” The idea is that there are jobs for which employers can’t find employees because higher education is not providing the students with the skills required for these jobs. In other words, higher education is out of touch with “the real world” and is, therefore, dragging our economy down by limiting the possible productivity of graduates. Matthew Hora and his co-authors examine this claim from a variety of perspectives, providing much research to support their counter-claims about the reality of the situation. I won’t go into all of the details of their counter-claims but the one I found most compelling is that Hora’s research led to the conclusion that often there is not a skills gap but is instead a wage gap. Some of the employers having the most difficulty finding skilled workers are the ones who are unwilling to pay a wage that would actually attract graduates. In addition, the authors discuss hiring practices at some companies as being what ManpowerGroup calls “looking for a ‘purple squirrel.'” In other words, the company is looking for a perfect candidate that simply doesn’t exist. The authors point out that there is rarely a “one-to-one match between the specific requirements of a job and any one candidate.” The proof that a skills gap doesn’t really exist in most professions is that wages in those professions have not risen in the way that you would expect them to given a short supply of workers. Paul Krugman has said that the skills gap idea is “a zombie idea–an idea that should have been killed by evidence but refuses to die.”

The authors acknowledge that not all elements of the skills gap “narrative are untrue–there appear to be shortages in specific occupations, certain competencies valued by employers (e.g., the ability to be a close and active listener) tend to be overlooked in many college classrooms.” In addition, there is a need for schools to “shift from conveying decontextualized procedure and facts to grounding lessons in real-world problems, situations, and activities.” Such a shift helps students to transfer school-based learning to other situations which is a valuable and necessary skill for a successful graduate.

But the fact that parts of the skills gap narrative are true in some situations doesn’t justify the wholesale dismantling of higher education. In fact, the authors argue, the insights they gained through their research show us how increased support might make higher education more effective using a variety of measures, including how well-prepared graduates are for the work force.

I found the book to be most valuable in its discussion of the kinds of skills students need in order to be successful in the twenty-first century. Using a variety of research methods, the authors discover that most employers (and faculty) want students to develop “habits of mind.” A habit of mind is a way of “perceiving the world and acting within it.” Some habits of mind are what we have typically called “soft skills”–critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, communication skills, and so on. Other habits of mind are attitudes or dispositions. For example, several studies since at least 1995 have shown that the biggest deficit that employers see in new employees involves their attitudes concerning work–things like reliability, determination, ability to “pick up on local values and adjust their thinking and actions accordingly.” I think these are some of the things that we are trying to address with the cluster initiative. By giving students contextualized experiences where they see the content they are learning in action, we hope to improve their critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, and communication skills. We also hope that they will be more readily able to transfer these skills (as well as the “hard skills,” their more technical skills) to new situations. And we hope to help them engage more fully with their own educational process in an effort to influence their attitudes about work. By the way, the authors suggest that these habits of mind are exactly the kinds of things that a liberal education is designed to develop in students. This matches our current focus on using general education to start our curricular reform efforts.

But the authors point out that habits of mind are learned cultural artifacts. Students develop habits of mind with influences from many places–schools, parents, peers, media, and so on. The biggest fallacy of the skills gap narrative is blaming education for all of the problems that we see in students’ habits of mind. It takes a village to influence a student’s habits of mind.

The book is much more complex, nuanced, and compelling than my brief summary here. I highly recommend it!

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