A popular myth is much too often repeated in policy circles and by politicians on campaign trails. It goes as follows: there are millions of open jobs in the U.S. that are unfilled because there are no qualified candidates to fill them. Hence, the solution to our unemployment and underemployment problems, as well as stagnating wages is more education and training/re-training. As a result, billions of dollars are going into various workforce development and re-training programs at every level — federal, state, local. I am all for more education and training, but I am for it because I just think more knowledge and education is good. I don’t think, however, that such efforts are likely to create more good, high-paying jobs. And to see why, let’s just look at data and do a bit of myth-busting about the skills gap.
First, all the data for skills crisis comes from surveys of business executives, such as the Inc. magazine survey of 5000 CEOs in which “76 percent said that finding qualified people was a major problem.” Similar surveys with same results have been done by ManpowerGroup and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (not exactly an objective source of data). There are absolutely no credible academic studies or data that support the skills gap claims, however. In fact, when four branches of the Federal Reserve looked into the skills “crisis” a few years ago, they came up “empty-handed.” A 2013 study by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) analyzed national wage and job data, supplementing the study with a survey of manufacturers. Like the Federal Reserve, BCG’s research failed to uncover significant skills shortages. Of the 50 biggest manufacturing areas in the U.S., only five were suffering serious skills shortages (Baton Rouge; Charlotte; Miami; San Antonio; and Wichita).
Iowa State University’s economic analysis of national and statewide employment, education, and population data arrived at a similar conclusion. Researchers Dave Swenson and Liesl Eathington identified several factors contributing to hiring challenges, but a widespread lack of skilled workers was not one them. They and others found small regional variations in availability of skilled labor, but nothing significant beyond the regular ebbs and flows of the economy. Indeed, if you believe in a well-functioning market economy, skill gaps should result in significant wage increases and much longer work hours for workers, neither of which is the case today. Iowa researchers’ conclusion: “When employers say there’s a skills gap, what they’re often really saying is they can’t find workers willing to work for the pay they’re willing to pay.”
Yet, billions of dollars are spent on various training and re-training schemes. And if you or someone you know, have been to some of these, you probably know that a lot of such training involves training for yesterday’s jobs or ways of working. A recently laid-off acquaintance, for example, told me that her “training” involved help in putting together a resume, learning how to conduct an interview, and how to create and update a LinkedIn profile. I showed her an article by Stephane Kasriel, CEO of Upwork, a microwork and online freelancing platform, in which he argues that the two least effective tools in the hiring process are a resume and in-person interview.
I think it is time to abandon or at least put under a lot scrutiny our dearly held myths of a skills crisis and workforce training and re-training, which often puts additional burdens and stress on the workers themselves. It is time to invest in solutions that include better matching of people to work that they are capable of doing and that help us take a lot of existing biases and gates out of the hiring process. Do people really need a degree to work at Starbucks? Do you need a degree in computer science to do basic coding? Tools like Knack, which matches people to work based on actual competencies, along with platforms such as Unitive that works to eliminate subconscious biases in the hiring process, can do a lot to help organizations close not an imaginary skills gap but the human potential gap, the gap between people’s capabilities and available work opportunities.
Marina Gorbis is a futurist and social scientist who serves as executive director to the Institute for the Future (IFTF), a Silicon Valley nonprofit research and consulting organization. In her 17 years with IFTF, Marina has brought a futures perspective to hundreds of organizations in business, education, government and philanthropy to improve innovation capacity, develop strategies, and design new products and services. Marina’s current research focuses on how social production is changing the face of major industries, a topic explored in detail in her book, The Nature of the Future: Dispatches from the Socialstructed World. She has also blogged and written for BoingBoing.net, FastCompany, Harvard Business Review, and major media outlets. A native of Odessa, Ukraine, yet equally at home in Silicon Valley, Europe, India, and Kazakhstan, Marina is particularly well suited to see things from a global viewpoint. She has keynoted such international events as The Next Web Conference, NEXT Berlin, the World Business Forum, the National Association of Broadcasters annual convention, and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges annual conference. She holds a BA in psychology and a master’s of public policy from UC Berkeley.