Today, I joined business leaders, members of Congress and experts from well-respected think tanks for a panel discussion on one of the most pressing workplace policy issues of our time: the skills gap. The panel, sponsored by centrist think tank Third Way, was convened during the Democratic National Convention (DNC) to unpack the challenge of—and highlight solutions to—developing a workforce that is ready to meet the demands of the new economy.
The first question pitched to me was basic but relevant in light of some current debate: Is the skills gap a myth?
I believe there is a skills gap because SHRM members, HR professionals on the frontlines of finding and hiring talent every day, tell us so. In fact, in our recent research, The New Talent Landscape, about two out of every three HR professionals reporting having a hard time hiring for full-time jobs this year—up from 50 percent since our similar survey in 2013—in part due to lack of skills and needed work experience. Moreover, I hear firsthand from CEOs and other executives who have trouble finding the local talent they need to power their businesses.
So the skills gap is real and we need to bring all of our skills to bear on it. But how do we help close it? I have suggested five ways:
1.Public policy must be better focused on solutions.
Government must have clarity on the skills required and implement education and training policies to build those skills. At the same time, they must welcome foreign talent that complements the local workforce and builds a global economy. We must also make sure we take every step to attract and hire those skilled workers who sometimes get overlooked in our society—such as minority populations, individuals with disabilities, the long-term unemployed and veterans.
2.We need to leverage public-private partnerships to advance education.
We need to see more demand-driven partnerships across all sectors and at all levels. For example, the U.S. has a robust public workforce development system, but too few employers know about or use it. Business must also build bridges to centers of higher learning—secondary schools, local and community colleges—to design courses that meet specific needs and develop local talent pools.
3.Businesses must find creative ways to bring training back.
The private sector must find creative ways to bring training back, including leveraging new technology. Today, we have access to web-based tools—either free training systems or existing online courses—to teach new skills without employees ever leaving their desks or incurring major costs. Employer-provided educational assistance is also an important tool to continue developing our workforce.
4.We need to create a new kind of respect around skilled technical workers through vocational education and apprenticeships.
While a four-year college degree is seen as the primary entry point into today’s workforce, focused vocational training and apprenticeships have been de-emphasized to a dangerous point. But this is precisely the kind of proven training that has built prosperity in the past, which are still in heavy use in nations like Germany. Classrooms can only offer so much. Hands-on experience in a competitive work environment, under the tutelage of a professional, is not only valuable, it’s necessary.
5.We need to pursue broad-based coalitions, particularly around STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).
Countries need to build broader-based alliances to advance specific priorities, as some industry-wide coalitions are doing today to advance STEM education. There are many companies and organizations that are developing their own academies, partnering with local community colleges or finding other unique ways to educate, train or grow skilled talent. We all have a role to develop the workforce needed today and tomorrow, and will be most effective by partnering together.
If we do these things, we can help close the skills gap and develop those skills that people, organizations and even nations need. I urge all HR and other business leaders, policymakers, educators and influencers to join this most critical effort.