Being an Informed Part of the Skills Gap Discussion

Image courtesy of Flickr/CPG Grey

Debate is good for business. It’s good for a lot of things really, and makes life interesting, especially when it’s a topic that has a broad reach. The discourse around the skills gap falls into this category, and it is resounding. From national pundits to watercooler colleagues, the dialogue questions what the skills gap is exactly, its true depth and breadth of existence, whom it affects most, where the blame lies (unproductive) and viable solutions (productive). There is no shortage of opinions and ideas on this complex issue to be sure.

Part of any good conversation is the introduction of empirical evidence to support one opinion or another, and recently, that has been a focus for the skilled workers gap debate. In October, the American Staffing Association launched its ASA Skills Gap Index,which tracks the number of hardest-to-fill occupations across the country. According to the ASA, the index “measures the level of difficulty (on a scale of one to 100) to recruit for a specific occupation based on demand, supply of active candidates, and total population working in it.” As chairman of the organization during the past year, I can attest the drive and desire to have a clearer understanding on the differential between the number of skilled labor jobs available and the number of unemployed workers with the skills needed for those jobs.

Updated quarterly, the first index report identified 207 occupations as “hard to fill,” with occupational therapists, truck drivers, speech-language pathologists, nursing instructors and teachers, and computer software engineersamong the top 10. Knowing where the most significant disparities are is important to fixing the problem because what the evidence shows us is that skills gap variances are specific to industries as well as locales.

For example, a municipality housing a healthy textile industry may not experience particular difficulty hiring because those companies have partnered with local trade schools to create a pipeline of talent, while a different town with the same industry center may struggle significantly to attract skilled workers because if its rural location and low-wage offering. Or it may be the nature of the job — nursing jobs experience high turnover given its demanding and emotional work; electricians are aging out en masse with more than a third of that workforce 55 or older; and graphic design work is highly subjective and therefore job fit can be more difficult to find.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Maureen Downey recently reportedon the skills gap and included an interesting anecdote from Eric Spiegel, president and CEO of Siemens Corporation, about the recent challenges he faced trying to staff a new gas turbine plant in Charlotte. After Siemens tested applicants in reading, math and basic technology, only a fraction of the job candidates made the cut. Those candidates who did needed additional training, but no local community colleges were teaching the advanced manufacturing skills needed to run the plant. The company decided to send local professors to Germany to learn the skills needed to run the plant and established training programs in Charlotte community colleges to help fill positions that paid more than $50,000 a year.

CareerBuilder addresses the current state of affairs and delves into the different parts of the puzzle — employers, workers and academia — in its 2014 Skills Gap Report. Each entity has played a role in the creation of the skills gap, and has a responsibility for its part in the solution. For employers, changing the way they approach the search for new talent and on-the-job training become fundamental to closing the gap. Job seekers should work to make themselves more marketable and take advantage of ways to increase their own skill sets. Academics need to create pathways of communication with employers to better understand the rapid changes specific jobs and workplaces as a whole are experiencing.

An aging workforce, a large number of students turning to four-year colleges instead of trade schools, and continual technological advances have made for a staffing perfect storm. While the skills gap will remain a reality for the foreseeable future, approaching the issue in a smart and strategic way will help companies avoid much of the maelstrom that it brings. By engaging in an informed debate and assessing the specific effect staffing shortages play within an organization, we will be able to turn to more realistic and executable solutions that will bridge the skills gap for each of our industries.