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So What's the Problem?

April 15, 2020
We know we have a Skills Gap but we cannot clearly explain why we have it — or why it's problem.

It seems impossible that anyone working in manufacturing is unaware of the Skills Gap, a term derived from the realm of analysis (referring, diagnostically, to the difference between skills that employers want or need and the skills available among their workers) but elevated by capital letters to describe the broad, U.S.-economy-wide “problem” for manufacturers unable to find job candidates suited to their open positions. I first heard of the Skills Gap in reference to the latter situation more than a decade ago, and I believe it’s a serious concern. I’m not sure how many of the people and organizations that raise the Skills Gap to my attention understand why it is (or should be) concerning.

More directly, is the Skills Gap simply the result of educational or training methods? Is it an economic problem calling for more resources? Is it a social or cultural problem? There is evidence supporting each conclusion.

In the days prior to writing this I have received multiple notifications from contacts or agents urging me to investigate various new findings or scholarship on the Skills Gap. Apparently, February was “Career and Technical Education” month, prompting at least some of this heightened attention to the Skills Gap. One contact pointed me to a survey showing that only 32% of high-school students are made aware of trade schools as a post-graduation option, though 93% of parents would support their child’s decision to pursue a skilled-trades career — meaning certification-level training in welding, machining, plumbing, carpentry, etc. The same survey also showed that most high schoolers do not consider attending a trade school because they do not know such options are available.

This describes an institutional bias in favor of more traditional academic objectives (graduation… then college, etc.) or the more recent academic emphases on science and engineering disciplines, but not practical or applied skills. This is not news. 

Another framing of the Skills Gap concerns not the workers (or would-be workers) but the employers: one-third of manufacturing businesses have turned down opportunities because they lacked workers to fulfill an order, according to a National Association of Manufacturers survey. The contact bringing this to my attention advocates for wider use of automation, including emerging mobile and collaborative robotics technologies, which is interesting — but it’s not a new understanding of the Skills Gap. It’s a justification for capital spending.

Yet another source informs that 69% of U.S. employers now struggle to fill open positions, in contrast to 14% in 2010, and that “skilled trades” top a list of unfilled jobs that also includes IT, engineering, ac-counting/finance, and construction. This framing implies that the problem is the nature of the work, and concludes that employers need to respond better to workers’ personal expectations as well as professional aspirations, in order to attract and keep skilled workers. This may get close to the real cause of the Skills Gap, but it’s remedial – not preventative. It may fix individual employers’ problems but the wider resolution is quite uncertain.

The Skills Gap is undoubtedly real, but after 10 years it seems to me that like Infrastructure Spending and Climate Change it has transformed into a convenient issue for advocates of other causes to raise the visibility of their message. I tend to believe that no “problem” is truly a problem if the apparent solutions are too difficult or objectionable, or expensive to be applied. When the Skills Gap is revealed to be a symptom of misplaced and misunderstood social and economic priorities, then the solution will seem much clearer, and more realistic.