The debate over the existence of the skills gap in the modern workforce is a war of anecdotal evidence and age-old grievances on both sides. Some contend that the skills gap is a myth perpetuated by a business community that has abdicated its responsibility to invest in its employees. This side of the debate contends that students have always been unprepared to immediately contribute in their professional lives, but that companies once understood this and invested in training rather than complain about deficient skills while refusing to raise wages.
On the other side of the debate is a business community that is astounded at the low professional readiness of graduates coming out of American colleges. The problem to them is less that students leave university without job-specific skills, but that they come out with poor real-life preparation in general. Stories abound about graduates with no business etiquette, with a sense of entitlement, with unusable degrees — not to mention a lack of job skills.
To us, the most sensible stance seems to be that a skills gap exists if there is perceived to be one at all. The “skills gap,” even at its most academic, is a subjective reality of hirers’ opinions, so it needs only to exist in employers’ minds in order to exist at all. Pro-graduate voices can carp about businesses seeking to foist the cost of skills development onto students, many of whom are heavily indebted because of their education already, but as long as employers feel that job applicants are underwhelming as a class, then “the skills gap” is real.
Add this new study to the body of evidence suggesting that hirers do indeed feel this way. An Association of American Colleges and Universities study released in late January revealed a fairly staggering gulf between the skills that college graduates considered themselves to have and what employers thought. This is consistent with past findings, but it still reflects that at least in the minds of hirers, the skills gap is very present. In illustrating this, it also points to the incontrovertible reality of the skills gap: if employers are of a certain impression, then who are we to say they’re wrong?
Employers vs. Students on College Grads’ Skill Level
Even worse, the areas in which students are reported to be lacking aren’t even strictly “skill” areas. This study is not a collection of employer complaints about students’ ability to weld or code or keep books ‘like they used to.’ Instead, the categories on which employers were polled largely concerned professional soft skills. “Working with people from different backgrounds” and “analyzing/solving complex problems” were two of among many lackluster areas of candidate proficiency. “Written communication,” one of the bedrock skills of traditional academia, seems to be largely absent in the candidates that employers see. Some areas of poor performance are predictable: multilingualism is traditionally a low priority for American schools (your humble blogger being monoglot exhibit A) and statistics could be considered a relatively niche study. There’s no excuse, though, for being rated as lackluster in “evaluating information” or “applying knowledge skills to [the] real world.”
These results are so consistently negative, in fact, that they become a bit suspicious. Are college graduates really that bad at everything? Or are employers, generally older than job candidates and looking at them through a generational lens, being too picky?
It doesn’t have to be a binary in which companies are either greedy corporatists who exploit a hirer-friendly job market to cut training investment, or enterprising proprietors who are unable to find anyone cut from the right cloth. It could be a matter of opinion: older generations view young people as greenhorns with little real-world experience, a derision as old as humanity itself. Maybe the whole of the skills gap lives therein.
As long as the ones with the hiring capacity feel that way, though, the skills gap is real. The focus should be on closing it, not arguing about whether an entirely subjective artifact is justified when every study attempting to measure opinions on it attests to its prevalence. The skills gap will be closed not only with better skills among graduates, but in hirers having access to resources where they know that good training will occur — under their own watchful eyes, where they can craft their young employees into the kinds of workers they need.