Mind the Gap - polarization in the global labor market

Globally, companies are struggling to find talent in a market saturated with applicants. For most organizations, the problem is the gap between available skills in the talent pool and their current job requirements. There are simply not enough people with the requisite experience, education and knowledge to drive and fuel innovation and growth.

Yet, the headlines are full of stories about high unemployment. The Economist reported last year that, “Of all the big, rich Group of Seven economies, America has the lowest share of 'prime age' males in work: just over 80 percent of those aged between 25 and 54 have a job. In the late 1960s 95 percent worked.” The McKinsey Global Institute recently reported that “demand for high-skill labor is now growing faster than supply, while demand for low-skill labor remains weak."

How did we get here?

Two different studies suggest technology and education as key drivers in effect well before the economic downturn. Authors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee posit that “more work was being done by, or with help from, machines. For example, Amazon.com reduced the need for retail staffers; computerized kiosks in hotels and airports replaced clerks; voice-recognition and speech systems replaced customer support staff and operators; and businesses of all kinds took advantage of tools such as enterprise resource planning software.” In their working paper, economists David Autor and David Dorn found similar technology trends in addition to shifts and declines in education levels. In a related article, Autor states, “Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, the rise in U.S. education levels has not kept up with the rising demand for skilled workers.”

Could approaches to education be compounding the issue?

Ann Stone references E.B. White's book “The Trumpet of the Swan” to illustrate the pitfalls of teaching to the test at the expense of critical thinking. From the chapter “School Days”:

The fifth-graders were having a lesson in arithmetic, and their teacher, Miss Annie Snug, greeted Sam with a question.

“Sam, if a man can walk three miles in one hour, how many miles can he walk in four hours?”

“It would depend on how tired he got after the first hour,” replied Sam.

The other pupils roared. Miss Snug rapped for orde

“Sam is quite right,” she said. “I never looked at the problem that way before. I always supposed that man could walk twelve miles in four hours, but Sam may be right: the man may not feel so spunky after the first hour. He may drag his feet. He may slow up.”

What can we do?

One solution is increased corporate responsibility.  In 2009, Accenture created the Skills to Succeed program, which focuses on building skills that enable people around the world to participate in and contribute to the economy. By the end of fiscal 2011, the program has equipped more than 160,000 people—nearly two-thirds of its goal of 250,000 people—with workplace and entrepreneurial skills.

Ultimately, those of us in a position to do so -- whether that is business or government -- will need to find ways to ensure we are developing the right skills for today and the workplace of tomorrow.

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