Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 21st century skills shortage was the greatest threat to national economic prosperity. The mantra of the last decade was, “We need to address skills shortages.”
The problem of skills gaps has not disappeared; in many ways the COVID-19 crisis could deepen it. Shifts in the labor market, depletion of industries such as retail and hotel trade, and disruption of education can lead to new skills mismatches. But much of the decision is in the hands of employers: providing the training needed for workers that our economy needs.
Prior to the pandemic, employers were often too quick to point the finger at the education system for failing to provide training programs that kept pace with the rapid pace of technology, for failing to prepare young people for being “ready to work.” soft skills for the future of work and for the inability to develop a strong work ethic that drives a competitive economy.
This argument was one-sided and simplistic then and remains. The point is not that there is no shortage of skills, but it is too easy to define the problem as a problem of low quality workforce, blaming students and our education system. This is a two-way street: for our economy to prosper again, employers must take responsibility for eliminating what is largely a training gap.
Let’s consider the following:
What employment skills do young people lack?
We hear a lot about the lack of soft skills such as problem solving critical thinkinginnovation and creativity, the ability to deal with complexity and ambiguity, and communication.
But isn’t the traditional university degree course – with its emphasis on critical thinking, discussion, consideration of issues from different angles and clear communication – designed to teach many of these social skills? When I graduated in political science in the late 1980s, I needed to make arguments on issues, respond to objections, develop the ability to imagine myself in someone else’s place, listen critically, and consider perspectives that might call into question my own fundamental beliefs. I have also participated in community and sports clubs and societies that have helped shape teamwork and conflict resolution skills.
So what happened? Is the experience of higher education different than in previous years? Are students different?
As for the first question, there is probably some truth in the assertion that for many courses institutions focus on maintaining academic rigor and lagging behind in the application of this knowledge and in the development of these critical interpersonal skills.
According to Dr. Eric Fraserauthor of The Psychology of Best Talent and a part-time Yale School of Medicine teacher, there is another problem: he believes students are less involved in extracurricular activities on campus because for this generation digital natives, their social connections mostly occur online. Instead of joining a club, they join an app or online group. Representatives of this generation believe that the best way to solve the problem is to go to your smartphone and “Google” to find a solution.
Employers also say graduates lack technical skills. According to 2019 national employer survey conducted by the UK Ministry of Education, “more than four-fifths (84%) of vacancies with a lack of qualifications were at least partly due to a lack of technical or practical skills”, most often due to a lack of specialist skills or knowledge required to perform the role.
Part of the problem is that many technical degree courses cannot keep up with the rapid pace of technological change faced by most industries. When someone graduates, his or her knowledge is out of date.
Because of these challenges, universities need to do more to provide industry education that prepares young people for work, but they need the support of employers to help create a talent pool with skills that meet the needs of today’s business. So what is the solution?
Industrial partnerships with universities are key to building future-ready talent teams
We need to be much more involved with employers, not only in curriculum development, but also in providing students with opportunities for practical, hands-on experiences, such as internships – the most important decision for job readiness.
Great cooperation with universities can also help employers better understand that they can’t just publish a job description, say they need a degree, and assume that a degree is a proxy for everything they want, from timely appearance to collaboration and expression ideas to respond to critical feedback in a thoughtful way. No graduate will ever be a “finished article”. Once in the workplace, they will need ongoing training to get started.
Are we really talking about a lack of learning, not a lack of skills?
Training in production shows that we need much more effort in the industry. In the UK, according to a survey of employers, only 27% of employers provided students with jobs in 2019 – compared to the already low percentage of 30% in 2016.
When it comes to training the workforce, spending in the UK over the last few years has remained. We do not yet have statistics for the whole year for 2020, but the latest set of results for 2019 (from a survey of employers) shows a decrease of 5% from 2017 to 2019. In North Americacorporate spending on L&D has been growing, but gradually since 2015, to fall by only 2% in 2020 to $ 165.3 billion.
Also recent global labor force research A study by IBM found that half of businesses do not have skills development strategies.
The impending prospect of a global economic downturn caused by the pandemic, and the risks that are forcing companies to better protect their monetary positions, may mean that they are cutting the pipeline and training the workforce – which we must avoid at all costs. Moving forward, decisions must be shared, based on strong collaboration between government, industry and education providers.