The Skills Gap is a Myth Stifling Innovation in Business

by Andy Heikkila

4830803189_97d4f652b6_bIf there’s one thing that I’m getting sick of hearing about, it’s the skills gap. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a very real situation happening here: as of the last business day of June 2016, there were 5.6 million jobs available in the U.S. according to the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) for said month. At the same time, the U.S. unemployment rate currently sits at 4.9%, which equates to about 7.77 million people. Why is it that we can’t fill these jobs? Why is it that we can’t cut unemployment down to half its current rate? The infamous skills gap, according to the internet… but what if I told you that this whole “skills gap” thing is a myth that those in power are clinging to, hoping to keep the “old way of doing things” alive while fiercely resisting change and innovation? A disclaimer: I’ve written about the skills gap before, what it all means, how to overcome it, etc. It’s only as I’ve grown older, watched the situation develop, and decided to dive into the origin of the skills gap that I’ve realized what a confused web has been woven.

Origins of the “Skills Gap”

My independent research has shown that the term “skills gap” used in reference to the labor force has been around for almost 30 years now. The first mention I could find was in the Workforce Preparedness for Economic Development’s “Report on the 1989 North Carolina Business and Industry Survey,” which found:

“A random sample of 2,334 employers was surveyed; 1,150 responded. Results were divided into three areas: skill levels of high school graduates, problems finding qualified applicants, and the widening skills gap. According to the findings, only 53.9% believed that high school graduates have adequate reading skills. Other skills were reported to be inadequate: writing (51.8%), math (48.2%), thinking (40%), and communications (51.2%). Regardless of firm size, a majority of the employers are dissatisfied with the preparedness of high school graduates for entry-level jobs. Much greater satisfaction was expressed with community college and university graduates. On average, respondents report finding 28 of every 100 applicants qualified. Overall, 69.4% perceive a widening skills gap between employer needs and worker skills.”

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The gap, much like the perfect hire, is a myth

Sound familiar? Mentions continue throughout the 1990s, with the Department of the Army in Washington D.C. releasing “Experience for Hire: Closing the Skills Gap with Army Alumni” in ‘90, Motorola releasing “Closing the Skills Gap: Impact of a Workplace Literacy Program” in ‘91, and the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL)’s “Closing the Skills Gap: New Solutions” in ‘92. This list goes on, and on, and on–you can check it out here, and this is just a brief snippet of publications that have been uploaded to archive.org.

From Hard Skills to Soft Skills

One of my favorite recent trends has been reading about how a the hard skills deficit is proving more and more a myth. Whether it’s the manufacturing sector, the IT skills gap, or any of these other sectors that claim to have a gap, the general trend was to complain about how the hard skills just weren’t there. As the number of STEM students enrolling in colleges boomed after the recession, employers were more apt to complain that schools simply weren’t teaching skilled workers how to be… well, skilled. As more evidence surfaced that employers are paying too little for what STEM majors are worth, as well as the fact that hard skills can and should be taught somewhat by employers (something Motorola already covered in their 1991 report), the topic of conversation shifted to soft skills.

In early 2015, Avinoam Nowogrodski, founder of Clarizen, wrote an article for Fast Company defending the virtue of soft skills, specifically the ability to listen. He says: “most importantly, soft skills—particularly listening—fuel a company culture of respect… If you respect other people and listen to them, they will respect you. This is how you manage innovation.”

Around the same time, multiple articles began coming out of the woodwork in support of soft skills and emotional intelligence, claiming that it is here, with soft skills, that there is a deficit, as well as a lack of solution. Adecco USA’s recent surveys, Carsten Sudhoff, writing for HuffPo, Mark Feffer, writing for SHRM, and Bruce Tulgan of Rainmaker Thinking all purport that this soft skills gap is this new, emergent thing–and it was actually Tulgan’s paper that spurred me to write this article–when in reality, there is either no soft skills gap, or it’s been around long enough that we should have either solved it by now or need to stop talking about it like it’s real. Don’t believe me? Peter Capelli, the Co-Director of the National Center on the Educational Quality of the Workforce wrote “Is the ‘Skills Gap’ Really about Attitudes?” in 1992. On top of that, if you go back up to the 1989 North Carolina report, you’ll notice that the most deficient skills–writing, math, thinking, communication–are all soft skills.

Acting Like Generation Z Millennials Are the Problem?

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Those pesky Millennials…

So here’s where my gears are grinding. I have nothing against Bruce Tulgan, who has been doing interviews and following the workforce since before I was born. He wrote an article titled “The Soft Skills Gap and Generation Z: Teaching the Missing Basics to Today’s Young Talent” in which he actually focuses on some of the basic facts I’ve laid out, i.e. the skills gap has been talked about/around for years. I also applaud that he’s correctly identified many of the elements that most separate Gen Z from previous generations, such as globalization, institutional insecurity, the rise of new technology such as VR, human diversity, and helicopter parenting. What I don’t like is that Gen Z is always painted as the problem to solve, or, in Tulgan’s words, the “rising global youth-tide of ‘Little Emperors’ who… are less inclined to try to ‘fit in’ at work and more inclined to try to make this ‘whole work thing’ fit in with them.” Here’s another bit from Tulgan that I believe paints an inaccurate picture of Gen Z:

“The bottom line is this: you simply cannot have a functional workplace where everybody makes his own rules of conduct. Imagine an organization where some employees support the mission, but others support the opposite mission. Where nobody agrees about who is in charge. Where people come and go whenever they feel like it. Where some people wear pantsuits, and others wear bathing suits. Where people only work on the tasks and responsibilities they enjoy, insist on doing everything their own way, and only work with the people they like. Where meetings are held with no particular agenda, and people are encouraged to blurt out whatever pops into their heads. Where people may or may not return each other’s calls and emails. And so on.”

This is ridiculous. American industry and enterprise has not and will not devolve to such a degree because of a lack of soft skills. He continues:

“Sometimes conforming makes a lot of sense… Nobody needs Gen Zers to give up their uniqueness as individuals, their overall non-conformism, or adopt too many arbitrary, exclusionary, or overly constraining standards. But most managers would very much like Gen Zers to make some reasonable adaptations—to adjust at least some of their attitudes and behaviors to the realities of the adult workplace. The problem is… they usually do not realize just how much “just doing their own thing” makes their attitudes and behavior maladaptive in the real world of the workplace. Most of them have no concept of the incredible power of the old-fashioned soft skills.”

This is where I really begin to have a problem. Tulgan acts like the Millennial generation is wrong for wanting what we want–more flexible work hours, the ability to work from wherever we want, a break from arbitrary rules such as you can wear this or you can’t wear that (nobody in their right mind is going to wear a swimsuit to an office job–I know that we’re the generation that takes selfies while we drive, but we’re not that dense), and the ability to choose a humanizing life that fulfills us instead of one that centers around a world of work–but doesn’t consider that maybe this confluence of new ideals that has shaped Generation Z might actually be useful in shaping the new world of globally connected work. I’m not saying Gen Z is necessarily right. I’m just saying that the issue isn’t so black and white, that it isn’t as absolute as Tulgan paints it. Here’s the big kicker, the note that Tulgan decides to end with:

“If you want your employees to really focus on high-priority soft skill behaviors, then you need to:

 

  • Set clear goals for specific behaviors.
  • Monitor and measure each employee’s actual performance on those specific behaviors in relation to those goals.
  • Provide candid feedback, direction, and guidance on those behaviors.
  • Problem solve and troubleshoot when course correction is necessary.
  • Identify opportunities to improve on those specific behaviors.
  • Recognize and reward success on those specific behaviors.
  • Identify high performers for key assignments, opportunities, and promotions based on success in those specific behaviors.

 

Your young employees need to know exactly what is expected and required of them every step of the way when it comes to high-priority soft skill behaviors. They also need to know that their performance will be measured and that the score will have real consequences for failure and real rewards for success.”

To me, this sums up the entire piece. Tulgan is absolutely right to give this advice–but I don’t think it truly has anything to do with Millennials or Gen Z. This is simply how managers need to manage. Hearkening back to what Nowogrodski says, hire an employee who knows how to listen. After that, follow Tulgan’s advice (this is called “coaching” or “managing” by the way), and you’ll have yourself an employee that fits your company culture. Of course, if you fail to realize that your vision of “company culture” is only one side of the coin, you’re doomed for failure. If the world doesn’t share your values or your vision, whose fault is it if the agenda you push isn’t accepted?

Am I so out of touch?

 

 

Culture Wars and Resistance to Innovation

Now here’s where we come full circle. Innovation is happening at a rate so quickly now, almost everybody is apt to label it “disruption” because it’s changing the way the world works so fundamentally. Those resistant to that change are always going to find a way to decry it, to blame somebody else for their inability to adapt to said change. Liz Ryan contributing to Forbes wrote a fantastic piece titled “The Most Serious Skill Gap of All” that implores business owners and hiring managers who believe in the skills gap to take a serious look at themselves. She says:

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Wouldn’t it be nice?

“Here’s the problem. Skills gaps are imaginary. Just because a hiring manager says that they want a person who can fly and sing Italian opera while they’re writing code does not mean that such people exist, and certainly not for the designated salary. Strong leaders operate in the real world… they make adjustments constantly, in order to stay in close contact with reality. Any company that complains about skills gaps has lost that connection… if we are not tuned into reality, it’s nobody’s fault but ours.”

Ryan’s solution is to teach employees how to be entrepreneurs, to use that pesky Gen Z deference toward conformity and to wrangle it into something productive, innovative, and potentially game changing. Instead of trying to change the culture so that it fits the current business mold, we need to alter how we do business to conform to the culture that supports it–the same way that ‘Boomers had to when Gen X came along, and I’m sure in the same way that I’ll have to when I’m 45 and the next “newfangled generation” comes storming through the office doors.

All in all, what we need to stop doing is talking about the skills gap, or at least stop talking about it like it hasn’t been around for 30 years. The more we write about it as if it’s a new problem, the more amnesiac this echo chamber sounds. What we need to start doing, on the other hand, is holding businesses and hiring managers accountable, and asking them how they’re changing to meet the demands of an ever-innovating world around them.

The sooner we stop clinging to this myth of lacking skills, and rather begin to embrace new ways of doing business, the sooner we’ll close this gap.

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Andrew HeikkilaWelcome Andrew Heikkila, a tech enthusiast and writer from Boise, Idaho, and a new contributor to Innovation Excellence. He also writes for Tech Crunch. You can follow him @AndyO_TheHammer

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