AAC&U News, May 2017

Perspectives – Mythbusting the “Skills Gap”

The “skills gap,” the idea that US colleges and universities fail to prepare students with skills necessary for successful careers, has become a bogeyman of higher education, capturing the imagination of employers and haunting discussions of curricular reform.

According to a 2015 survey published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 91 percent of employers believe that a job “candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than his or her undergraduate major.” However, most of these employers (58 percent) think that students are not graduating with the full set of skills necessary to do a good job in an entry-level position. Students were more optimistic, with 74 percent thinking they graduated with the necessary skills.

In their recent op-ed in Forbes, “The Skills Gap Is Actually An Awareness Gap—And It's Easier To Fix,” Ryan Craig and Troy Markowitz (who is vice president of Portfolium, an eportfolio company) argue that students do have these skills but lack methods to demonstrate them to employers.

“What if we told you this well-understood reality is a little more than fiction, and that a gap of another sort does exist,” they write. “We call it the ‘awareness gap.’ Simply put, this is the inability for college graduates to make employers aware of the skills they actually have.”

The inability to match open positions with qualified candidates hurts businesses as well as students. “These unfilled positions carry a tremendous economic cost for businesses. In the United States alone, reduced productivity stemming from open positions accounted for $160 billion of lost revenue in 2014,” Craig and Markowitz write, citing research from Indeed.

They recommend finding alternatives to traditional transcripts and résumés, asking educators to “imagine a next-generation course catalog showing majors and courses, alongside the skills they should expect to attain and how those skills correspond to specific industries and jobs.”

In his recent op-ed in the Hechinger Report, Matt Sigelman, CEO of employment analytics firm Burning Glass Technologies, argues that a skills gap does exist, just not in the way that educators and employers fear. He writes that students are “leaving school with a valuable set of skills but often lack that last specific skill or two that can clinch the first job. Too many students are almost qualified—and almost isn’t good enough.”

Many of these “almost qualified” graduates enter the workforce underemployed in positions that don’t use their degree, leaving them unable to pay back student loans and feeling like their education was not worth the cost. To combat this phenomenon, institutions should align themselves with the labor market by clarifying to students the specific skills that will increase their chances of getting their first job.

“Liberal arts graduates, for example, are often portrayed as choosing their majors in open defiance of the job market,” Sigelman writes. “Yet Burning Glass research shows that by adding just a few specific skill sets, such as marketing, sales, social media, or coding, liberal arts graduates can nearly double the entry level jobs available to them—and command a $6,000 salary premium.”

According to a recent article in Inside Higher Ed, “the Business-Higher Education Forum, a nonprofit membership group of Fortune 500 CEOs and college leaders,” recommends that institutions “follow the lead of Drake University, which offers a minor in data analytics to undergraduates in any field of study.”

In his article, Sigelman illustrates the effect that a single skill can have on students’ careers by citing research that shows psychology majors can increase their annual earnings by $24,000 if they are adept at statistics.

“That’s a quarter-million-dollar difference over a decade,” Sigelman writes. “If students knew that while picking their courses in college, what do you think they would do?”

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AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.

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