The idea of a skills gap--a mismatch between skills learned in school and those required in the jobs created by today's economy--has received a lot of popular attention. The new workplace is thought to require workers with higher, more generic skills, such as problem-solving, decision-making, communication, and teamwork; and schools are not perceived to be producing students with these skills. The result, it is argued, is a skills gap that threatens American productivity and competitiveness. The following excerpts from NCRVE reports explore and examine this idea from various perspectives. As usual, there's more going on behind the popular conception of the skills gap than meets the eye.
It has become commonplace to argue that the workplace has changed dramatically in response to a new competitive business environment that is marked by flexibility, fast response time, and managerial and technological innovations. Work organization is now, the argument goes, increasingly characterized by the integration of traditionally separate functional roles (e.g., design, engineering, manufacturing) and flatter organizational hierarchies with decentralization of responsibility and greater employee involvement. Innovation and speed are accomplished through teams of workers who monitor quality and take charge of reconfiguring the production process, thereby performing some of the supervisory, planning, repair, maintenance, and support functions previously the responsibility of managers or specialists. Compared to the traditional model of work, based largely on mass production, this new "flexible" model is thought to require less supervision but requires workers with higher and more varied skills.
It is also commonly asserted that students are ill-prepared for the future workplace and that they need new kinds of skills to perform well. One conception, offered in a recent book by Marshall and Tucker, sums up "the emerging consensus on the skills needed to power a modern economy" as follows: a high capacity for abstract, conceptual thinking; the ability to apply that capacity effectively to complex, real-world problems that may change as jobs evolve; the ability to communicate effectively, particularly when communicating within work groups, on highly technical topics, and with computer-based media; and the ability to work well with others as well as independently, with relatively little supervision.
This concept of skills requirements, however, largely ignores the work context by viewing the workplace as a backdrop to individual actions. Absent is the idea--borne out in many studies of actual work--that workplaces are shaped by human choice and by the actions taken by those who work in them. An analysis of skill requirements that ignores work context draws attention away from workplace characteristics and possible shortcomings in firm behavior that affect skill utilization and performance, including poor management, fear of empowering workers, pursuit of low-wage options such as offshore production, and the depression of wages, benefits, and working conditions.
In sum, an analysis of the skills gap that ignores the workplace itself has helped shape a somewhat one-sided public discourse that blames the gap on individuals who lack skills and on educational institutions that fail to adequately teach them. It focuses policy on reforming schools or creating standards for individuals to achieve and pays less attention to workplace reforms that might improve skills and productivity.
We face two fundamentally different questions when we examine the postulated skills gap. First of all, we can speak of a skills gap for a specific employer (e.g., General Motors), or class of industry (e.g., manufacturing), or class of jobs (e.g., equipment maintenance technicians). In each of these cases there may be specific remedies for the specific problems that each employer, industry or job class is experiencing. On the other hand, one can speak of a national skills gap that has broad effects across employers, industries and jobs, and may require broader across-the-board solutions. For example, extensive illiteracy in the working-age population would have serious consequences for most employers.
Unless we understand the nature of the skills gap, we may choose the wrong solution. If the skills gap is broad but firm-specific, then careful analyses need to be undertaken in those sectors where there is a problem, and education and training need to be customized to those specific problems. If the skills gap is national, in the sense that all students are lacking a needed skill or set of skills (e.g., foundation skills), then we must examine a representative set of firms in order to draw appropriate generalizations about the nature of the skills that are lacking, and develop a broad education and training strategy that addresses those skill shortages. Reaching this level of understanding will require careful attention to, and analysis of those cases where employers identify skill-related problems in their workforce. That is, we must first understand where the problem exists. Once identified in terms of scope, there remains the question of specifying the nature of the skills gap and the remedy that is needed.
In this review we briefly examined the literature related to a basic premise underlying the current wave of new school reforms. While many believe that our economic health is at risk if schools do not improve students' basic and generic skills, we find little direct evidence to support this belief. Portions of the logical or theoretical argument find some empirical support, but the research base is clearly incomplete and controversial. It appears that research and anecdotal reports tells us more about what skills employers want than what skills they need.
From an educator's perspective, the research fails to specify which skills--domain or job-specific, generic skills, basic skills--or work-related attitudes are needed for productive work. Even if we assume that generic skills or work-related attitudes, in addition to specific job-related knowledge and skills, are important enough to incorporate into school curricula, broad descriptions of such skills are not enough to inform practice. Deeper analysis of the acquisition of target skills and their application in the work context are needed to inform curriculum development and instructional design. This observation holds for firm-based training in new skills as well, for both new and incumbent employees. Unfortunately, school reforms aiming to improve youth transition from school to work or preparation for further education and lifelong learning generally fail to address curriculum reform and all that it entails, except at the most general level.
Damaris Moore, a member of the Dissemination Program, handles NCRVE's public information initiatives.
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