Guest Post: bridging the work-skills gap

Anna Trainer and I share the love for Brontosauruses. Specifically, of Brian Switek’s “My Beloved Brontosaur“: it was during one of Switek’s readings that I first met Anna. We continued to bump into each other in science writing events, and she quickly became my go-to paleontologist. Finally, it dawned on me that it would be great to have her perspective at Sci-Ed. Enjoy her guest post below, and find more information about Anna’s background on the bottom of the post. 

Last November, I observed university professors, school administrators, and employers from large corporations doing something unusual: agreeing with each other.

They were all attendees of The Close It Summit, a conference designed to find creative solutions for the work-skills gap. They were discussing the work-skills gap, an increasingly prevalent problem in the United States. The work-skills gap describes the discrepancy between the highly skilled, often highly technical jobs available and the college graduates with the requisite knowledge to fill them (a problem that greatly affects individuals in STEM fields). The conference brought together educators and employers to brainstorm innovative solutions for addressing these issues. It was a refreshing experience without any of the blame game that usually accompanies discussions about the skills gap. Both educators and employers recognized that the situation must evolve on both sides of the equation for the gap to be closed. Some of the propositions discussed included developing more intensive on-the-job training, offering co-op and internship experiences for students, and providing apprenticeships for high school, vocational school, or community college students.

The Work-Skill Gap: What is the role of educators?

Employers complain that they cannot find skilled workers to fill their vacancies, even when we were in the midst of the economic downturn. They maintain that the American education system is failing to prepare student for careers in highly scientific or technical fields. The reality is that the situation is complex and there is no simple solution. Although employers often blame the education system, educators contend that it is becoming more difficult to prepare students with the specific job skills when budget cuts hamper their efforts. Additionally, there is debate that the fault may lie not with the education system but with employers themselves. One simple solution often recommended by economists would be for employers to offer higher wages in order to get the skill sets they desire; oftentimes, with so many people desperate for jobs, it became easier to complain of a skills gap then to offer higher salaries. Students themselves, some of whom have earned degrees in STEM fields, are left frustrated at their inability to find good jobs. The problem continues to grow, and meanwhile the gap between the highly skilled and well compensated, and the low skilled and poorly compensated worker continues to widen.  Despite these issues, there is evidence that our educational system is not keeping pace with the demands of STEM careers. In a time where access to education should be more prevalent than ever in the United States, with knowledge and resources readily available at the click of a mouse, what is the explanation for the shortage of science, math and problem solving skills in our students?

What does money have to do with it?

The answers may not be the result of a deficiency on the part of education, but instead may be rooted in economics and politics. From pre-school through college, there are socioeconomic barriers to education. For example, preschool is not available to all students, despite the fact that it has been repeatedly demonstrated to be beneficial, both in terms of school performance and eventual socioeconomic status. Teaching has become less attractive as a career option, with teachers rarely being compensated competitively, combined with funding cuts, large class sizes, and ever-intensifying pressure to raise students’ standardized test scores. Barriers to higher education for individuals are difficult to overcome if they were raised in a low or even middle income family. With the costs of college seemingly exponentially on the rise, many people either decide not to go to college at all, or drop out with their degrees unfinished. The result is a young American populous pursuing jobs that they do not have the skills for, applying at companies who have no interest in using their own resources to train them.

It seems that even college graduates are falling further behind. A recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development demonstrated a troubling trend: American students are losing ground to their international peers in math, reading, and problem solving skills. Additionally, current American students are also falling behind earlier generations of Americans on literacy tests, with the current generation testing more poorly than 30 year olds did in 1994.  Another recent report agrees with these trends, citing inadequate education as the driving force behind the skills gap. However, the burden must not be laid solely at the feet of the academic institution. If employers are seeking the students with the best skills for their positions, they need to think of innovative methods for finding and training these workers.

Educators can’t do it alone!

Academic institutions are not designed to be vocational schools. Employers must also be willing to train workers for the jobs they have instead of looking for inexpensive employees who already have the skills. Apprenticeships, internships, and student co-ops are all viable options and should be further pursued across the scientific disciplines, as studies have shown that students with co-op experiences have higher starting salaries and employment rates.  In the meantime, college grads with degrees in the STEM fields will continue working for food in the hopes that the skills they earned in college will be enough for an employer to take a chance on.

The talented and skilled workforce is out there. There are thousands, if not millions, of college grads with the requisite skills for the workplace that are being overlooked by employers. The real difficulty seems to be in getting these individuals connected to the available jobs (and having an employer willing to pay you the wages your skills demand!). Recently, educators and employers have been joining forces to provide students with the necessary training. The Close It Summit is an example of this, but more work is needed, and requires a collaboration of employers, educators, and policy-makers. Opportunities in STEM fields will continue to grow; we just have to ensure that our workforce is given the chance to use their skills, and that those still in school are ready to achieve these opportunities in the future.

 Citations:

  • Barnett, W. Steven. “Benefits of Preschool for All.” National Institute for Early Education Research (2006).
  • Samuel Berlinski, Sebastian Galiani, Marco Manacorda. “Giving children a better start: Preschool attendance and school-age profiles”. Journal of Public Economics (2008)
  •  Munby, Hugh, et al. “Co‐op students’ access to shared knowledge in science‐rich workplaces.” Science education 91.1 (2007): 115-132.

AnnaAnna Trainer is a Biological Anthropologist who enjoys all things related to human evolution and science education. Her recent research includes examining the variation found in the modern human mandible and pondering the age old question of why humans have chins. She has additionally studied hominin occupational behavior in the Middle Paleolithic time period of Central Asia. Anna can be contacted via Twitter at @AnnaKatieT

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One Response to Guest Post: bridging the work-skills gap

  1. This does not address that, especially in the sciences, schools cannot afford the science equipment needed to train/educate/understand the equipment they will ultimately be working with daily at the workplace. Some companies donate old, antiquated equipment that helps a student understand, at the least, theory and method development. But I choose to work on an open-source model for laboratory equipment that students understand, is inexpensive, and they can even repair themselves, cheaply. THIS leads to skilled students leaving school entering the workplace. Even saving companies millions in training on equipment the students may otherwise never have even seen before.

    Richard Arnett
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