Even President Obama and Mitt Romney agree on this: A skills gap exists between American workers and employers. But a recent article in The Atlantic magazine suggests both are wrong in one of the few areas they find agreement: Its a myth that American workers are unprepared for the labor force.
Indiana employers raise the same complaint of unprepared graduates in a recent survey, suggesting a closer look is needed to inform policy discussions. Research from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, the University of California-Berkeley and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania all refute those claims, according to The Atlantic.
The 2012 Skills Survey, conducted by Inside Indiana Business, showed that employers found college graduates most lacking in critical thinking/problem-solving skills and oral communication. The findings mirror results from a 2011 Manufacturing Institute survey that listed inadequate problem-solving skills as the top skill deficiency in the industry.
Those findings contradict the conventional wisdom that more graduates are needed with expertise in subject areas such as science, technology, engineering and math – the so-called STEM fields.
In many cases, the sorts of skills employers want – problem-solving, creativity – demand better thinking and communication, the types of abilities one picks up in English, history and arts classes, writes Barbara Kiviat in The Atlantic. Yet by drawing a direct line from coursework to jobs, these are exactly the areas of curriculum that get tossed aside for more industry-specific concerns.
But the Wharton Schools Peter Cappelli writes that it is not skills but money at issue in some cases.
Some of the complaints about skill shortages boil down to the fact that employers cant get candidates to accept jobs at the wages offered, he writes in the Wall Street Journal. Thats an affordability problem, not a skill shortage. We wouldnt say there is a shortage of diamonds when they are incredibly expensive; we can buy all we want at the prevailing prices.
Senior economists with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago studied data from the Conference Board, which tracks online employment ads, and finds just limited evidence of skills mismatch.
We find that workers in occupations that require a moderate amount of skills have not experienced employment gains, despite the fact that the data from online ads suggest that their skills are in the relatively greatest demand, write R. Jason Faberman and Bhashkar Mazumder.
The research puts a new spin on claims that are mostly subjective. Before federal and state policymakers argue for more money to enhance instruction in certain subject areas or push colleges and universities to de-emphasize liberal arts in favor of STEM subjects, they should consider laying some responsibility on employers.
In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Whartons Cappelli puts it bluntly:
To get Americas job engine revving again, companies need to stop pinning so much of the blame on our nations education system. They need to drop the idea of finding perfect candidates and look for people who could do the job with a bit of training and practice.