M.I.T. Calls B.S. on Skills Gap


In the August 29, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, we call out employers, politicians and analysts who bellyache about the skills gap.

Question

A few years ago you called out employers for their misguided crying about the talent shortage. (News Flash! HR Causes Talent Shortage!) Now the terminology has changed. Employers reject countless qualified job applicants (example: me) who don’t match 100% of the key words in a job description, bellyaching that we’re imperfect. Are we really just pathetic examples of a national skills gap? How can we fight this, uh, hiring incompetence?

Nick’s Reply

I’m not sure there’s a difference between the talent shortage and the skills gap. The terms are used interchangeably by unskilled personnel jockeys, employers, and untalented government wonks and elected dupes who haven’t had to look for a job recently.

Both these excuses for the national epidemic of hiring failure are bogus, but they’re easy for abused job seekers to swallow. It’s time to barf up the truth.

Wharton’s Peter Cappelli has long been sticking this conventional-wisdom pig with a fork, as noted in the article you mentioned. Now the M.I.T. Technology Review has stuck yet another bunch of facts into this “controversy” in The Myth of the Skills Gap, an article by Andrew Weaver at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Weaver is another voice calling B.S. on the cheap attacks leveled at America’s workforce.

Oh, yeah? Says who?

Just because HR executives blow their recruiting budgets on job boards, applicant tracking systems, and key-word databases doesn’t mean you have to behave stupidly, too. (See Reductionist Recruiting: A short history of why you can’t get hired.) Just because personnel jockeys and job-board marketing geniuses tell you there’s just one way to apply for a job doesn’t mean it’s so. I mean, we’re talking about people who unabashedly admit they can’t fill jobs!

Likewise, prisoners of the labor market who cry themselves to sleep without jobs or paychecks every night shouldn’t believe employers and HR experts. It’s not true that today’s workers don’t have skills worth hiring.

Weaver, who is an assistant professor at the School of Labor and Employment Relations, writes that, “when we look closely at the data, this story doesn’t match the facts.” There’s nary a labor study, he points out, that even measures skills! So Weaver set about surveying employers about the skills they need, then asked whether they’re having trouble finding workers.

The skills gap is B.S.

Here are some of the surprises Weaver found.

  • Three-quarters of manufacturing plants surveyed complained they couldn’t hire skilled workers.
    But less than a quarter of them actually had job vacancies of three months or more.
  • IT departments complained of dramatic problems in filling help-desk jobs.
    But only 15% of IT help desks reported “extended vacancies in technician positions.”

So, where’s the lack of skills?

Weaver also found that the kinds of skills we’re told are sorely lacking are not really the problem.

  • Advocates for STEM education clamor for more workers with more “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics skills.”
    But Weaver’s data “show that employers looking for higher-level computer skills generally do not have a harder time filling job openings.”
  • Those who blame a skills gap also cite a lack of “soft skills” among younger workers — the ability to cooperate and to work on teams.
    But Weaver found the challenge for employers, even in manufacturing and help-desk jobs, is finding higher-level reading and writing skills.

The gap in conventional wisdom

Weaver and his fellow researchers focused their surveys on a narrow group of jobs (manufacturing and IT help-desk), but their findings seem to blow big holes in the conventional wisdom about many kinds of jobs. For example:

  • Top-level federal officials cry the workforce needs more computer programming skills.
    But programming isn’t what many jobs — even technical jobs — really require.
  • Lack of specific skills is the problem.
    But Weaver’s surveys suggest on-the-job experience and apprenticeship is what’s lacking.

Perhaps most stunning is a problem Weaver exposes in the ranks of economists and “labor-market experts” who drive public opinion and corporate hiring strategies: They “don’t know the exact mix or level of skills that particular occupations demand.” So why does anyone accept their declamations about skill gaps?

What’s the real problem?

Employers and labor-market experts, who aren’t even assessing or measuring skills, seem content to go along with the unsubstantiated contentions of “conservative tax cutters” and “liberal advocates of job training” that workers lack skills. That’s distracting everyone from a fact-based approach to managing the labor market and improving it. And it’s polarizing employers and workers.

Andrew Weaver’s findings dovetail with Peter Cappelli’s.

  • The problem isn’t with workers. The problem is employers “promoting unproductive hand-wringing and a blinkered focus on only the supply side of the labor market — that is, the workers.”
  • Employers are not cooperating with those who teach skills to workers; for example, colleges and other training institutions.
  • Employers are not investing adequately in employee training and development. “Only half of U.S. plants provide formal training to their production workers,” reports Weaver. Twenty years ago, 70-80% did.

Weaver closes with a warning:

“Misguided anxiety about skill gaps will lead us to ignore the need to improve coordination between workers and employers. It’s this bad coordination — not low-quality workers — that presents the real challenge.”

So, what should a job seeker do?

I publish only a small selection of questions, stories and complaints I receive from readers. The #1 issue I hear about: Frustration with employers who don’t seem to know what they want, who they need to hire, or what skills they really need in a worker. The fallout is confusing interviews, unexpected and questionable rejections, and enormous amounts of wasted time and energy.

The real skills problem seems to be this: Employers want skills, but they’re not willing to contribute to the skills pool or to pay for the skills they need. Meanwhile, employers pretend the problem is you — the workforce. So what’s a job seeker to do?

It’s not hard to navigate around the piles of b.s. in the jobs market. Let’s consider some strategies and tactics. These are just my thoughts and advice. The best advice is yet to come — so please post it.

Take control of your job search

“Based on your book I went into a job interview without the requisite experience but still won the job because I demonstrated that I understood the business objectives and challenges of the company and had a plan to achieve them! Thanks!”
-Sandeep Srivastava

From Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5: Get The Right Employer’s Full Attention, “How can I make up for lack of required experience?”, p. 8.

I think the strategy is easy, if we define the objective for ourselves rather than let the pundits and policy makers confuse us. The objective is finding and landing the right job.

Finding and landing the right job is not about appeasing the jobs processors. It’s about picking good employers and being ready to walk into a manager’s office and demonstrate, hands-down, how you’re going to do a job profitably for the employer and for you.

Such jobs are not in job boards or in key-word lists. Jobs are controlled by individual managers who need profitable work done. Go find the individual managers and get the facts directly. Go around HR. Ignore the recruiters. (See HR Managers: Do your job or get out.) Ask the manager: What’s the work? What’s the deliverable? What skills do you want and need?

Don’t buy the education that schools market. Don’t listen to the headlines or to the Department of Labor. Find out what skills the employer you want to work for needs, then design your own education accordingly. That’s right: Contact companies that make products you want to work on, get in touch with the managers of departments you want to work in, and ask them exactly what skills you should learn. Schools that lack close ties to industry don’t know what industry wants, so don’t trust their curricula — or their marketing!

Pick employers with a solid, documented record of training and developing their employees. Bypass the rest. You’ll save loads of time because researchers have shown that most employers stopped investing in their workers many years ago. Be selective. Invest your career only in companies that can show you they’ll invest in you.

Pick schools that have a documented record of close ties and cooperation with employers. Look for active internship and apprenticeship programs. Bypass schools that can’t demonstrate such relationships. If what you want is a good education and a good job on graduation, don’t compromise on this. Most of the biggest names in higher education fail this test. (See New Grads: How to get in the door without experience.)

Pick schools with great career offices. This will make your choices easy because most schools don’t offer solid career services. Go visit and meet with the counselors. Study their career programs and offerings. Ask for references — grads who are working and employers who hired them. A college that delivers courses in your area of study but fails to deliver education in how to get a job is delivering only half an education — and it will leave you with a fatal skills gap.

Is there a skills gap? How can the gap between capable workers and jobs be bridged? What will it take for employers, schools, and government to get together with the workforce to create a healthy job market? I’ve shared a few tips for job seekers — but the best is yet to come. Please post your suggestions about how to wrangle a job out of an employer whose hiring methods are full of gaps!

(Many thanks to long-time reader Nick Tang for tipping me off to Andrew Weaver’s article!)

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