Blog Post

Confronting the Skills Gap – Are Higher Education Graduates Career Ready?

by | December 11th, 2017

Undoing the Entitlement Syndrome by Fundamentally Rethinking the Relationship between Education and Work

First, let’s be clear that the so-called skills gap is not something new. It’s been brewing like a toxic stew for more than forty years. The term “skills gap” only barely describes what is really going on. Nearly everyone involved has had some role in creating and sustaining something that runs deeply in the culture of western society.

The often unrealistic expectations and dreams of many well-meaning people are at the center of a tragedy of the perceived skills gap. It is the unfortunate byproduct of hope – that most laudable of human traits.

As we explore the recipe for the current “skills gap stew” and job readiness consequences, we take firm aim on what we see as the best path forward to achieve job readiness in hope of inspiring the higher education industry as a whole and the stakeholders who drive it.

The History of Entitlement and the Skills Gap

Starting in 1944 with the GI Bill, the focus was on a generation of young people at loose ends, wage earners displaced by the shutdown of wartime industries and those who had put their lives on hold and very often on the line for years to fight in World War II. America and other nations experienced the same economic downturn after such a large scale, protracted conflict. What to do? Step One: Incentivize the four-year college degree, thereby opening the door to the highest paying jobs. Market and fund it as something to which all people were entitled.

Prior to this point, four-year post-secondary institutions were largely the playground of the privileged. Their role was to create a limited supply of leaders – an intellectual elite capable of driving industry and government forward. “Regular folks” were encouraged to become the muscle and sinew of a nation as line workers – whether on the assembly line, the forge floor or in the developing suburban landscapes rapidly becoming places of business.

In the pre-technology era, few skills were required for most jobs. If you had basic literacy and numeracy skills, you could easily learn the few functions required of you on the job (an extension of the concepts behind Henry Ford’s assembly line). And you could make an adequate, if not very good living, at that. Through hard and loyal effort or just being in the right place at the right time, you mastered a broader range of knowledge about the company and skills needed to run it. Lower or even middle management might be a reasonable life goal for you. Life in the suburbs was good. Small town America flourished.

Not surprisingly, people often worked for the same company their entire lives, all the while governed by the few who had the educational pedigree of a university degree from a “good school”. Even more important was the network of connections attained through that education that provided the opportunity to amass real wealth.

Changes were imperceptible until the 1960s and 1970s when information technologies crept into the workplace. The technocrat was born; a generation of highly competitive youth was more than ready to embrace the leg-up that technical fluency added to their university degrees.

Upwardly mobile and self-promoting, they parlayed their status of having degrees into being the indispensable repositories of complex skills – both technical and managerial. They were bold and took risks in their effort to reach the top and break into the inner sanctums that had, at one time, been reserved for “old money” and their families.

So, let’s end this short history lesson with an explanation about how all of this accounts for the present protestations by employers who “cannot find career ready employees” for jobs that sit unfilled. First and foremost, the overselling of the four-year degree and related statistics seemed to provide compelling evidence that college graduates earned vastly more that their high school graduate counterparts, convinced parents that nearly every student ought to apply to a four-year institution. K-12 educational effectiveness was beginning to be scored by the percentage of students who attended “selective” institutions.

This had two deleterious effects. First, vocational and technical education that has fed community colleges (two-year institutions), trade schools, and apprenticeships were downgraded in their value. High school “technical” shops closed in droves as parents steered their children toward the “college prep” track. Second, the students who were well-suited to making a good living in the trades now found themselves on college campuses. The result has been the dire requirement for very expensive remediation. By 2006, 40 percent of college students took remedial courses. In public two-year colleges, 51% were enrolled in such courses at a total cost to schools of $1.4 billion (NCES, 2010).

Learners who had traditionally been streamed off to the trades and middle-skills jobs (ones that require some training post high school but less than a degree) have been drowning on campuses across America and in other western countries as well. They haven’t been able to truly succeed on the college campus, but have been left with few other options.

Entitlement and Perceived Skills Gap Impact on Higher Education

Higher education has found itself forced to accept and educate students who may be better served by other post-high school options. Consider the impact on of non-completers on the higher education institutions; higher completion rates translate into better ratings, higher tuition and better reputation. Unfortunately, the four-year degree has become a commodity.

The 2011 publication, Across the Great Divide: Perspectives of CEOs and College Presidents on America’s Higher Education and Skills Gap, makes this frightening point:

Today, more than 70 percent of high school graduates enroll in some kind of advanced education within two years. Yet, just over one-half of bachelor’s degree candidates complete their degree within six years, and less than one-third of associate’s degree candidates earn their degree within three years. America has a serious college completion crisis.

Published by Civic Enterprises Corporate Voices for Working Families in association with the Institute for a Competitive Workforce, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Peter D. Hart Research Associates

All of this does not account for the tragic melting away of students, disappointed by poor results, who never finish their course of study. Some Ivy League schools address this problem with extended or nearly eternal “deferments” that keep students off the drop-out tally as long as they annually declare their intent to continue to defer. Other institutions just wallow in the public recrimination that comes from the apparent failure to deliver. But is it really the fault of the institution?

Skills Gap Impact on Students and Employers

There are now a great many young people lacking the skills sought by employers, who themselves are smarting over the loss of highly skilled, retiring Baby Boomers. According to the American Management Association, core skills are a renewed focus for employers, consequently, there is now greater demand for programs that develop communications skills, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity, all of which aim to improve long-term employee productivity.

Added to this are those students who would have been served better by apprenticeship and other forms of on-the-job vocational training had their schools and parents not diverted them. It is no wonder that many American firms complain long and loud about being unable to fill both entry-level and high-skilled jobs. Demand is high. College graduates often come ill-prepared to demonstrate basic employment skills.

Ironically, the dash-to-degrees has created the further effect of downgrading their value. Things that are rare and hard to attain are the currency people trust. The bachelor degree has become a commodity, so where does that leave the employer and the hapless job candidate? For many HR professionals, the BA has become merely the proxy for a presumption of maturity compared to a high school graduate, but it conveys nearly nothing certain about what a person can actually do. So, not only do we have an issue with degree entitlement, but also a crisis in credentialing – documentation that proves the skills a job prospect/graduate is bringing to the table.

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How Higher Education Needs to Pivot to Address the Perceived Skills Gap

Is there hope?


National perception of entitlement created the problem. National re-focus on reality can fix this.

As a hint of things to come in future blog posts, let’s look at how Germany tackled the issue. Germany demanded and received the national cooperation of industry and schools to support a combined trade school and on-the-job vocational training solution. By 2013, Germany posted 1.8 million apprentices and about 500,000 sponsoring companies— despite having a population less than one-third of that of the United States.

Comparatively, the USA has only 358,000 registered apprentices and 250,000 employers that sponsor registered apprentices, although many of them join together, leaving only 21,000 unique programs nationwide.

This problem has been recognized by some and there are models of good practice around, if the powers-that-be care to look. Just take a look at Mike Rowe Works Foundation. This foundation, started by the Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame, works to provide opportunities and Work Ethic Scholarships to qualified applicants.

America is creative and can be moved to do the right thing. But first, it has to shed its untenable belief that a college degree is the only path to a good life, if only because it is the stuff of legend not reality.


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