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Beyond the Skills Gap: How the Vocationalist Framing of Higher Education Undermines Student, Employer, and Societal Interests
EDITOR’S NOTE: With the Frederic W. Ness Book Award, the Association of American Colleges and Universities recognizes a book that made an outstanding contribution to the understanding and improvement of liberal education in the previous year. The 2018 award was presented to Matthew T. Hora and his coauthors, Ross J. Benbow and Amanda K. Oleson, at AAC&U’s 2018 annual meeting for Beyond the Skills Gap: Preparing College Students for Life and Work. The following article was adapted from the address Hora gave on that occasion.
Working in the hot, dusty fields of an organic vegetable farm in rural Maryland led me down a path of scholarship that eventually resulted in Beyond the Skills Gap: Preparing College Students for Life and Work.1 In the early 2000s, I had helped to manage a farm where we grew tomatoes, kale, collards, and sweet potatoes. There, I first heard about food miles, and the claim that food travels an average of 1,300 miles to its ultimate destination—a factoid that we prominently featured in pamphlets as a reason for supporting our farm. Reduce carbon emissions, keep your dollars in the local economy, and improve your health by purchasing our local veggies—from farm to table in only twenty miles!
But there were two problems with this narrative. First, it was factually incorrect. After perusing the stacks at the National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, Maryland, I found that the figure came from a 1969 report on the hypothetical effects of a nuclear strike on the nation’s food-distribution system.2 The authors had estimated shipping mileage between various agricultural regions and population centers as part of this exercise, and it by no means represented a careful analysis of the distances that food actually travels in the United States today.
The second problem was that this figure came to represent for local and organic food activists a symbol of everything that was wrong with the way food was grown, distributed, and consumed. But in framing the problems associated with our modern food system in terms of carbon emissions and long-haul truck driving, it glossed over the multitude of economic, political, sociocultural, and ecological factors that shape how people buy, cook, and eat food. It also pointed to solutions that were primarily spatial—such as reducing the distance food travels between producer and consumer—instead of focusing on issues such as the preponderance of fast food and liquor stores in high-poverty neighborhoods where access to fresh produce was severely limited. In short, the statistic failed to elicit the systemic thinking necessary to address the ecological, economic, and nutritional problems plaguing our society.
Fast forward to the snowy landscape of Madison, Wisconsin, where I moved in 2006 and quickly encountered another, even more potent frame—the skills gap. Soon after the Great Recession of 2008 hit this manufacturing stalwart of the upper Midwest, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker began proclaiming that the skills gap—the idea that plenty of well-paying jobs existed, but the educational system was failing to provide employers with skilled workers—was the primary cause of high unemployment and a stagnant state economy. The national media helped to perpetuate the narrative, with CNBC even claiming that “The Skills Gap in the US [is] Killing Millions of Jobs.”3
So what exactly was wrong with the nation’s schools, colleges, and universities? According to proponents of the skills gap, it was simple: high schools were too focused on the precollege curriculum instead of hands-on vocational training, and four-year liberal arts colleges and universities were providing too many degrees in disciplines that had little value in the labor market. Essentially, the argument was that graduates of French literature or art history programs were languishing in low-paid, low-skilled work, hoping against hope that their barista wages would pay off their exorbitant student loans. As the skills-gap argument goes, higher education would better serve society by encouraging students to major in “high-demand” fields like nursing, engineering, or computer science. Underlying this narrative was the conviction that the ultimate purpose of higher education was to prepare skilled workers for the workforce, not what W. E. B. DuBois called “broad-minded, cultured men and women.”4
But after a three-year empirical study of how educators and employers in Wisconsin conceptualized essential workplace skills, my colleagues and I found that the skills-gap discourse—peddled by politicians and pundits from both sides of the aisle—was just as unfounded as the claim that your broccoli traveled 1,300 miles from farm to table. As with the food-miles statistic, the skills-gap narrative was not just inaccurate: it was a potent and enduring idea that was being used to advance an ideology where college students were seen more as “bundles of skills” to peddle in the labor market than as young people aspiring to master a craft or contribute to society.
Ultimately, we concluded that in the fervor to discredit and diminish higher education in general and liberal education in particular, skills-gap advocates were undermining the long-term interests of the constituency they purported to serve—employers—as well as the futures of students and society itself.
The skills gap and its power as a rhetorical frame
The skills gap is a powerful idea largely because it acts as a frame—or what the sociologist Erving Goffman called “schemata of interpretation,” cognitive structures comprised of interconnected ideas that enable people to make meaning of events, diagnose problems, and identify solutions.5 In research on how frames function in social movements, scholars have found that when ideas resonate with existing sentiments or experiences within the populace, they can quickly spread and act as powerful motivational forces for political action.6
In the case of the skills gap, two distinct terms are combined to strongly suggest a disconnect between employers and the possessors of skills (i.e., students or workers). The skills gap is doubly powerful, however, because it not only encodes these ideas, but also serves as a diagnostic and prognostic framing device, pointing to higher education as the cause of the gap and vocational training as the solution that would impart desirable skills to the workforce.
In Wisconsin, this frame caught on like wildfire as savvy politicians like Governor Walker promoted it to tap into (or create) a growing sentiment in rural communities that urban elites and public employees were overpaid, out-of-touch liberals who drained public coffers. The political scientist Katherine Cramer studied this phenomenon in Wisconsin and called it the “politics of resentment,” with public higher education serving as a highly visible symbol of everything that was wrong with “big government,” cultural elites, and the stagnant prospects of the working class.7 At the heart of the skills-gap frame was a similar disparagement of higher education, especially four-year universities and the liberal arts. The problem was simple: too many students were going to college and getting the wrong credentials and skills.
As the skills-gap frame became more prominent during and after the 2008 recession, many critics skewered the idea as unsupported by empirical evidence. After Marc Levine, an economist at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, called the skills gap a “myth,” basing his claim on evidence that wages were not rising for welders in the region as they would if workers were in high demand,8 Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) immediately countered that their conversations with manufacturing executives, who spoke extensively about problems finding skilled workers, trumped the “theoretical” academic research being conducted by labor economists. As WMC President James Morgan wrote, “We read the report, and waited to get to the part where the professor talked to manufacturers. Unfortunately, he did not.”9
As a trained cultural anthropologist with ample experience doing field interviews, I couldn’t pass up this call to arms. With my colleagues Amanda Oleson and Ross Benbow, I embarked on a study that was generously supported by the National Science Foundation and involved interviewing 152 educators and employers throughout the state. We visited iron foundries, biotechnology labs, small community colleges, and huge universities from the northern city of Superior to the urban center of Milwaukee, from La Crosse on the Mississippi River to the home of the Green Bay Packers in the Fox Valley region. This is what we discovered.
Key findings: skills, teaching, and hiring
1. Skills are complex networks of knowledge and norms unique to professions. One common feature of reports about the skills gap is how little attention they pay to precisely which skills are missing. In many cases, skills are conflated with the technical knowledge (or “hard skills”) required to succeed in specific industry sectors (e.g., manufacturing, health care) or occupations (e.g., quality engineers, nurses). When analysts are more specific, they may offer lists of generic competencies as evidence of “what employers want” or “what graduates need,” and these lists invariably include what some call “soft” or “noncognitive” skills such as communication, teamwork, and critical thinking. Yet in both cases, these skills are stripped of context, nuance, ecological validity, and thus applicability to real-world situations.
At first glance, our findings did not diverge dramatically from the claims reflected in the generic skills lists, with the possible exception of evidence we found that work ethic and lifelong learning are in particularly high demand. Consequently, I agree with the increasing consensus that in order to thrive in the twenty-first-century workplace, graduates must not only master the technical aspects of their fields, but also the norms of reasoning, communicating, collaborating, and learning unique to their particular occupations.
Our data departed from the skills-gap discourse, however, in locating skills within specific—not generic—workplaces and professional cultures. As we evaluated how engineers, production supervisors, or lab managers conceptualized skills in ways unique to their professions, we found that in many cases, they saw these skills as interconnected webs, networks, proficiencies, or ways of being rather than isolated, discrete bits of knowledge or ability. As one manufacturer observed, “problem-solving in teams is what we do here.” When production problems arose, employees had to communicate quickly—often across specialty areas and disciplines—to troubleshoot. Thus workplace tasks rarely drew upon a single skill or body of knowledge, but instead required an amalgamation of distinct yet interrelated competencies.
Perhaps the way in which our data most contradicted the skills-gap frame, however, was in revealing that conceptions of skills are not objective phenomena that all observers interpret in the same way, but instead are deeply shaped by culture, gender, discipline, and even geography. Consider how a WMC representative described a conversation he had with a manufacturing executive:
[The executive said,] “You know, what we measure when we’re trying to hire somebody is YOTF.” And I said, “What is YOTF?” And the guy said, “Years off the farm.” And if I could summarize the skill set that’s missing [among job applicants], I think that’s it. If you think of kids who grew up on a farm in terms of work ethic—I mean, you’re getting up at six in the morning, you never get a day off—they get that, and they get the problem-solving part because if something breaks down on the back forty, you’ve got to figure out how to fix it.
For this employer, growing up in rural Wisconsin symbolized a panoply of skills, knowledge, abilities, and attributes, underscoring the
fact that in many ways, skills are culturally constructed artifacts.
2. The classroom is a critical venue for reproducing skills. Employers and educators in our study agreed that the skills and aptitudes considered essential for student success were not easily acquired. A short-term training program was simply insufficient to cultivate the complex habits of mind that were truly in demand. Instead, internalizing these competencies required two ingredients: time and hands-on instruction. Apprenticeships in countries like Germany, which are widely lauded by skills-gap advocates, take anywhere from two to five years. Additionally, effective apprenticeship programs involve both the acquisition of theoretical and foundational knowledge and a healthy dose of related experiential learning opportunities.
The use of active learning techniques has long been a goal of educational reform. In an active learning classroom, students are not sitting passively at their desks receiving wisdom from lectures, but instead are actively engaged in constructing their own understanding of the material with the skillful management of the instructor. During our fieldwork we found such experiential approaches in several community college and university classrooms, with faculty employing sophisticated versions of problem-based learning or cognitive apprenticeship, or instinctively mimicking a workplace situation as a learning tool. The key issue here is that carefully designed and expertly monitored learning spaces are essential to teach, model, and reproduce disciplinary knowledge and habits of mind.
Yet in the skills-gap discourse, teaching and learning are invisible. Ensuring that students acquire the skills they need is treated as a technical problem to be solved by creating new programs and eliminating others, with student enrollment as the input, highly skilled (and marketable) graduates as the output, and learning as the impenetrable black box in between. Advocates of the skills-gap frame don’t just minimize the difficult and time-consuming tasks of teaching and learning: they vocally denigrate the entire profession, castigating K–12 and postsecondary faculty alike as lazy, overpaid, and out-of-touch public employees. This caricature dovetails neatly with the “politics of resentment,” resulting in the counterproductive marginalization of the one profession on the front line of skills development—teaching.
3. Hiring challenges are not solely due to poor education, and hiring discrimination persists. The skills-gap narrative purports that employers can’t find skilled workers, primarily due to the failure of the educational system to impart high-demand, marketable skills. Yet an analysis I conducted of WMC data from focus groups with manufacturing executives revealed a host of other reasons for these hiring challenges, including low wages, drug and alcohol problems, and undesirable facility locations. Clearly, the employers were struggling to find skilled workers for reasons well beyond the decision of some students to major in French literature or art history.
The work of labor economist Peter Cappelli adds another reason that employers struggle to find skilled workers: an overly stringent hiring process. His analysis revealed unreasonable expectations that highly experienced workers would fill entry-level positions, as well as hiring software that sought out only exceptional (and in some cases, nonexistent) candidates.10
But our research uncovered a more pervasive and pernicious criterion that is used to screen out job applicants: “cultural fit.” Seventy-four percent of the employers in our study stated that they explicitly screened out applicants who didn’t fit their culture. As one manager stated, “People who are absolutely perfect on paper won’t get a job if they don’t fit the company culture.” Hiring managers ascertained fit by comparing the applicants’ personalities, willingness to learn, and capacity for teamwork not to a nebulous ideal, but to something more real and exacting: the personalities and workplace routines of their potential coworkers. As one manager told my colleagues, many of his employees were rowdy young men who enjoyed hunting and snowmobiling—a set of hobbies that factored into hiring decisions.
The desire for a close fit between person and organization is rational, since fit reduces attrition and increases productivity.11 However, hiring for any type of fit not only limits the number of acceptable candidates for a job, but also likely involves both implicit and explicit bias, and even discriminatory hiring practices. Clearly, a central idea behind the skills-gap argument—that hiring problems are primarily caused by a poorly educated workforce—is inaccurate, and may even deflect from bigger issues affecting the hiring process.
Reframing the debate: rejecting the vocationalist defense of liberal education
Our research indicated that the skills-gap frame is inaccurate and incomplete. It misdiagnoses the nature of valued skills, ignores the critical role of teaching, and glosses over problematic aspects of employers’ hiring practices. Much like the claim that food travels 1,300 miles from farm to table, the skills gap reduces a complex array of issues and actors into a simplistic narrative where a single party (i.e., a failed higher education system) unilaterally causes economic stagnation.
The skills gap is a potent discourse that must be rejected on empirical and logical grounds, but also actively resisted. Tragically, the frame is not just empty rhetoric—it is being translated into policy and practice before our eyes, used in states like Wisconsin to advance an ideological attack on higher education in general and liberal education in particular. Policymakers have harshly criticized the sector as producing irrelevant research, operating inefficiently, indoctrinating students in left-wing politics, employing a lazy and overpaid professoriate, and failing to meet the needs of business. These sentiments have led to $500 million in budget cuts to the University of Wisconsin System, the political appointment of regents with little experience in the sector, the elimination of arts and humanities programs in the name of budgetary crises and workforce needs, and the evisceration of tenure protections and shared governance.12 Similar attacks have been unleashed in other states. Together, they constitute a concerted effort to dismantle one of the crown jewels of our society—the public higher education system—and must not go uncontested.
In response, many defenders of liberal education are adopting the vocationalist framing, arguing that arts and humanities majors can and do get jobs. Defenders of the sector cite reports that Silicon Valley giants are actively seeking liberal arts graduates for their creativity and thinking skills, as well as AAC&U’s employer survey, which found that 85 percent of employers value a broad-based education.13 Institutions such as the University of Wisconsin–Madison, recognizing the potency of the vocational critique, now tout statistics noting that 90 percent of graduates from the College of Letters and Sciences are gainfully employed or in graduate school.14 Essentially, the argument is that liberal arts graduates make good workers, innovators like Steve Jobs would not exist without the arts, and disciplines such as history and anthropology confer a unique set of skills that a program in engineering or biology simply cannot. Such arguments accept, reinforce, and perpetuate the framing that student employability is the primary goal of higher education.
But these arguments are counterproductive and mistaken. The vocationalist frame requires accepting the notion that students should be viewed primarily as workers, and education as the acquisition of marketable skills, all based on workforce needs. This framing also dehumanizes students, casting them as possessors of marketable skills and their socialization into a craft or profession as a technical matter. Worse, the view that education is solely about job training requires the deliberate suspension of belief about, or recognition of, a host of pressing social, environmental, and political problems, including climate change, income inequality, and the resurgence of virulent racism across the United States and around the world.
While it is foolhardy to claim that a liberal education is the solution to these problems, an argument can and must be advanced that broad education is one of the best ways to prepare the next generation to conquer them. We need graduates who understand history, including how the fall of the Weimar Republic led to the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s. We need graduates who understand sociology and how structural inequities in our educational and political systems effectively reproduce inequality along racial and class divisions. And we need graduates who are conversant in principles of biology and atmospheric science, and who understand the differences between science and propaganda, fact and fiction, evidence and faith.
For W. E. B. DuBois, the freedom to pursue a liberal education was essential for racial equality, ensuring that African Americans had as many opportunities to become doctors, politicians, scientists, and lawyers as whites did. But DuBois was not arguing for the creation of a class of black elites. For him, a liberal education was the key to a liberated mind and to men and women who knew “whither civilization is tending and what it means.”15 Defenders of liberal education must reacquaint themselves with this stance. Advocating for an integrative view that ensures students are trained in both work and life, vocation and knowledge, craft and service to humanity is the best way to reframe the role that higher education plays in society and the marketplace.
1. Matthew T. Hora, Ross J. Benbow, and Amanda K. Oleson, Beyond the Skills Gap: Preparing College Students for Life and Work (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2016).
2. Stephen L. Brown and Ulrich F. Pilz, U.S. Agriculture: Potential Vulnerabilities, prepared for the Office of Civil Defense (Stanford, CA: Stanford Research Institute, 1969).
3. Scott Cohn, “The Skills Gap in the US Killing Millions of Jobs,” CNBC, June 24, 2015, https://finance.yahoo.com/news/skills-gap-us-killing-millions-204222974.....
4. W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (A. C. McClurg, 1903; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015), 75.
5. Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974), 21.
6. Robert D. Benford and David A. Snow, “Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment,” Annual Review of Sociology 26, no. 1 (2000): 611–39.
7. Katherine J. Cramer, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
8. Marc V. Levine, “The Skills Gap and Unemployment in Wisconsin: Separating Fact from Fiction” (working paper, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee Center for Economic Development, February 2013).
9. James Morgan, “Skills Gap Exists in the Real World,” BizTimes, March 4, 2013, https://www.biztimes.com/2013/industries/manufacturing-logistics/skills-....
10. Peter Cappelli, Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do about It (Philadelphia: Wharton Digital Press, 2012).
11. Amy L. Kristof, “Person‐Organization Fit: An Integrative Review of Its Conceptualizations, Measurement, and Implications,” Personnel Psychology 49, no. 1 (1996): 1–49.
12. Nico Savidge, “Changes to Tenure, Budget and Regents Show Extent of Scott Walker’s Impact on UW,” Wisconsin State Journal, March 27, 2016, http://host.madison.com/wsj/news/local/education/university/changes-to-t....
13. Hart Research Associates, It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2013), 2.
14. Tom Ziemer, “Surveys: UW–Madison Liberal Arts Grads Landing Jobs,” W News, October 7, 2015, https://news.wisc.edu/surveys-show-uw-madison-liberal
15. W. E. B. DuBois, “The Hampton Idea,” in The Education of Black People: Ten Critiques, 1906–1960, ed. Herbert Aptheker (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973, 2001), 30.
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Matthew T. Hora is assistant professor of adult and higher education at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.