April 7, 2014

How Recruiters, Armed with MOOCs, Can Solve the Skills Gap

businessman with suitcase jumping over mountain gapThe “skills gap” is a funny thing. On the one hand, data seems to show that in the top 100 urban areas in the United States, 43 percent of jobs require a bachelor’s degree while only 32 percent of adults over 25 have one. Likewise, you can read that half the jobs today didn’t exist 25 years ago and that, even with unemployment stubbornly high, 49 percent of companies still struggle to fill job openings.

At the same time, others believe that all this talk of a skills gap is a convenient myth propagated by employers looking to keep wages down or to justify moving jobs offshore.

It may in fact be the case that coming out of the economic downturn some companies have tried to manage costs by looking for “purple squirrels,” people with preposterous skill sets, and discovered an unbridgeable distance between their desire and reality.

It is also undeniably the case, however, that the rapid pace of technological change has created real gaps between the needs of companies and the set of generally available skills in the labor force.

For example, the rapid rise of mobile means that companies need to create web experiences that work equally well whether someone is on a smartphone, a tablet or a desktop computer. One way to do that is to use an approach called “responsive web design” which has only been around for roughly five years, with the demand for it only becoming acute in the last year or so.

When confronted with such real (rather than mythical) skills gaps, recruiters and companies are faced with a dilemma: How do you find people with the skills you need when very few people actually have those skills?

The answer may be as simple as this: Train them.

Of course, such an answer raises a lot of different questions, first and foremost being: Who should train them?

“The companies concerned,” you might say. This is fair since companies looking to fill hard-to-fill positions would be the main beneficiaries of this training. The problem is that training may not be one of their core competencies; these companies may also be loathe to invest in such training unless they were really experiencing a large scale need, which would not necessarily be the case.

“Schools and other institutes of higher learning,” you might then say. This, too, could be a solution. However, it actually takes a long time and a lot of effort to introduce new courses of study to the curriculum. As fast as technology is changing, and along with it the needs of the private sector, the lag time between selecting a course, putting it on the schedule, teaching students, and then getting them in front of potential employers, could be too long to have any real impact.

So, what other options are there? Well, what if recruiters did the training?

While this might seem like a crazy notion, it bears consideration. First of all, recruiters are intimately aware of the skills gap because companies are constantly turning to them to find hard-to-find candidates.

Second of all, by providing training, recruiters wouldn’t simply benefit one company, they could benefit all companies (not to mention candidates).

Finally, recruiters now have access to a powerful tool that would allow them to offer this training to a broad swathe of job seekers. That tool is the massive open online course, “MOOC” for short.

MOOCs, as offered by EdX, Udacity, Udemy, and others, are just what their name suggests. They are massive (students can number in the hundreds of courses), open (which can mean open to anyone with an internet connection but can also mean “free”), and online (um, you know what that means).

The beauty of the MOOC is that it doesn’t share the overhead or the geographical limitations of traditional classroom education. The beauty of recruiters providing the training is that they can develop it free of any educational bureaucracy (or the proprietary restrictions of particular employers).

But the real beauty of this idea is that it solves the main problem that has plagued the MOOC purveyors from the outset, namely, tying MOOC education to actual economic opportunity. With recruiters determining course topics based on the express needs of employers, on the one hand, and their ability to get graduates in front of these selfsame employers on the other, with this idea we can effectively close the loop between education and work.

Matthew T. Grant is Director of Content Strategy for Aquent, a global staffing organization dedicated to marketing, creative, and digital professionals, and creators of Aquent Gymnasium, a revolutionary MOOC (massive open online course) program aimed at closing the skills gap faced by creative organizations worldwide.