Oh, Skilled Workers, Where Art Thou?
Five million people visit the Grand Canyon every year to marvel at its natural wonder. For all of its accomplishments, humanity has yet to construct anything that matches the beauty of America’s largest canyon.
Many business leaders treat skills gaps the same way. They stare at them in wonder, sure that no one could ever hope to conquer such a divide.
But the longer executives pretend skills gaps can’t be addressed, the wider those gaps will get. Maybe we’ll soon start calling them Skills Canyons.
The demand for skilled workers exceeds the supply by 4.4 million workers, according to “Different Skills, Different Gaps: Measuring and Closing the Skills Gap,” a new report from Burning Glass Technologies. If companies want to fill those open roles, they’ll need to do their part to train the workforce to meet their organizational needs.
One Problem, Many Solutions
It took a lot of players to create the skills gap, and it’ll take as many or more to fix it. The higher education sector failed to match learning tracks with employment trends and requirements. Federal and state governments don’t provide sufficient aid or incentives, nor have they reigned in rising tuition costs. The business sector complains loudly about a lack of talent, but doesn’t take the initiative to create the very talent it needs.
“All of these groups have an interest in creating a better supply chain for talent,” says Matt Sigelman, CEO of Burning Glass Technologies. “The biggest need is for a closer relationship between education and the skills demanded in the job market. Employers can be much more active and detailed in how they signal their needs in the job market. In particular, employers need to take a much more active role in engaging education institutions and training providers as key suppliers of talent — much like how they engage with and share specifications and future production plans with any other kind of supplier with whom they develop a long-term business relationship.”
Unfortunately, the various stakeholders tangled up in the problem have been slow to act on a challenge that requires immediate action. Meanwhile, the industries with the most critical talent shortages can’t afford to wait.
“Healthcare practitioners, computer and information scientists, and the new category of ‘hybrid jobs’ have particularly challenging problems, because it takes time to train workers in these fields,” Sigelman says. “In these cases, demand has simply outpaced supply, and training programs can’t keep up. Demand for data science skills, for example, has exploded in recent years, affecting a wide range of jobs. That’s a new skill set, and one that would have been hard for employers and training providers to anticipate.”
Talent shortages have driven sweeping changes in the business sector, as executives and human resources professionals try to find new and innovative ways to attract talent. In particular, many employers are now offering flexible work arrangements to attract more talent — but such a perk doesn’t work in every field. As Sigelman points out, “A hospital’s options for offering that kind of flexibility are significantly more limited than for a tech company.”
Moreover, flexible work hours and fantastic corporate cultures are great for recruitment and retention, but they are short-term solutions to a problem much larger in scope. Until the skills gap is addressed directly, companies will simply poach talent back and forth.
It’s also important to note that not every shortage of workers is caused by a skills gap, and thus not every talent shortfall can be solved using the same measures.
“[For example,] the shortfall in office and administrative workers is driven more by employers raising requirements in hiring — for example, asking for college degrees for jobs that didn’t previously need them — than by a lack of skilled workers,” says Sigelman.
Sigelman also suggests that both employers and candidates stop thinking in terms of the roles they can’t fill and start thinking in terms of the skills they need.
“That’s an important distinction because some of the biggest categories of growth are skills that are redefining jobs across the market,” Sigelman says. “Jobs are collections of skills, and the best way to qualify for a new job is to expand and refresh your skill set. The demand for data science skills has increased 14-fold since 2012, and that’s driven by a surge in demand for these skills across a wide range of jobs, not just by new postings for data scientists.”
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