It’s not a skills gap, it’s a skills challenge

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR

The height of the Great Recession brought talk of the skills gap front and center. As millions of job seekers took to the Internet to complain about boorish recruiters, clueless hiring managers, and broken hiring processes (including endless rounds of interviews), employers claimed they couldn’t find enough qualified workers to fill their job openings.

Workers shot back that there were plenty of qualified candidates—employers were simply taking advantage of the slow economy to be overly demanding, ridiculously exclusive (no long-term unemployed or older workers need apply), and cheap. The term “purple squirrel” became a conversation staple.

Who’s right?

Arguments FOR the existence of the skills gap

Regardless of company size, 51 percent of respondents to PayScale’s 2015 Compensation Best Practices Report agreed with the statement, “There is a lack of qualified applicants for our open job positions.” Employers in Information, Media, and Telecommunications (63 percent) were more likely to agree, while employers in Healthcare and Social Assistance (45 percent) were least likely. What’s more, nearly 35 percent of employers reported having an open position for 6 months or longer.

And then there’s this—according to a 2013 survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), American workers are far behind their European and Asian counterparts in the areas of literacy, math skills, and problem-solving using information technology.

Arguments AGAINST the existence of the skills gap

Many experts have stated repeatedly that if the skills gap were more reality than myth, employers would be raising wages and increasing their training budgets. And while it’s true that more companies are beginning to offer higher wages and invest in employee learning, these are relatively newer developments.

In fact, according to PayScale’s Real Wage Index, real U.S. wages are down 6.5 percent since 2006.

The ratio of job openings to job seekers also gives us pause. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported there were 5.1 million job openings at the end of February and 8.7 million job seekers. This ratio is said to match the pre-recession rate.

What are we to make of this? Well, some say it’s simple. On a national level there is no skills gap. Instead, the gap is limited to specific industries in specific locations. What we have, they say, is a skills challenge.

Addressing the skills challenge

The OECD says “concerted action” is necessary to meet the skills challenge, as well as:

  • Substantial improvements in initial schooling, with adequate standards for all;
  • Effective learning pathways for young adults after leaving high school. Programs addressing basic skills should be linked to employability;
  • Effectively coordinated adult learning programs adapted to diverse needs;
  • An increase in the awareness of basic skills challenges;
  • Action that is well-supported with evidence.

Clearly, these actions are well beyond the scope of most employers. However, employers can tackle the skills challenge by supporting youth in their local communities via mentoring and apprenticeship programs and by committing to ongoing learning and development of their existing employees.

Download PayScale’s 2015 Compensation Best Practices Report TODAY for more compensation and industry trends info.

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