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The Skills Gap

Much has been written in recent months about the skills gap — the gap between the skills people seem to have and skills that employers need.  So, when I saw that 60 Minutes was doing a segment on the topic last week, I did not expect to learn much.  But this show was exceptional.  It went beyond the usual shallow treatment of the subject to get at some important points that rarely come out.

The show introduced its viewers to Ryan Costella, head of Strategic Initiatives at Click Bond — a small, but growing company in Nevada that makes fasteners for very demanding applications.  They make their products here in the United States, not in China and demand for those products is growing fast.  The fasteners are not produced by human beings, but rather by computer controlled machines, and they are made to very tight tolerances.  The people Click Bond hires program the computers, operate the machines, fix them when they go down and check the products to make sure that they meet specifications.

What is holding back growth at Click Bond is their inability to find entry-level people who can do what they need to have done.  They are having a very hard time finding people who "read, write, do math, problem solve," says Costella. "I can't tell you how many people even coming out of higher ed with degrees who can't put a sentence together without a major grammatical error...If you can't do the resume properly to get the job, you can't come work for us.  We're in the business of making fasters that hold systems together that protect people in the air when they're flying.  We're in the business of perfection."

Costella told 60 Minutes that, when Click Bond tried to expand to meet growing demand, it bought the machines it needed from a company in Connecticut, but it could not find people in Nevada who had the knowledge and skills needed to operate the machines, so it decided to buy the whole factory in Connecticut, so it could get the people it needed to run the machines.

Click Bond, desperate for help, banded together with other employers to set up a program at the local community college.  They took unemployed people—and Nevada has a very large supply of such people—tested them for aptitude, interviewed them for attitude, and then trained them for the work that was available.  The students were taught to operate the computers, read blueprints, learn trigonometry to make precise measurements—all in sixteen weeks.

But it cost $60,000 to train 20 workers that way.  60 Minutes quotes Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, as saying, in effect, maybe there isn't a skills gap.  Maybe the skills gap is really a pay gap.  Maybe it would go away if employers were willing to pay more for the work they need to have done.  But the employers that 60 Minutes interviewed say they can't afford to do that.

So, is there a skills gap?  Or is it a pay gap?  Should employers be expected to teach reading, writing and trigonometry?  Or should the schools be doing that?  Is it reasonable to expect holders of bachelors degrees to write grammatically correct sentences and resumes that are free of mistakes in diction?

I run an organization a majority of whose employees are expected to have advanced degrees.  It is not at all uncommon for me to come across applicants for those positions whose resumes are full of grammatical errors and mistakes of diction.  I am in the habit of asking applicants for examples of their writing and am frequently appalled at the quality of what I am given, even by applicants with advanced degrees.

Peter Cappelli is right in saying that all an employer has to do to get higher quality staff is to pay more for them.  But this country is competing in a world market for labor and other countries are now producing better-educated people who are willing to work for less than our workers.  Paying more for their staff is not an option for employers who can be undercut by employers in other countries selling into our market.  Click Bond can only raise their prices so much before their customers decide that they can get similar products cheaper somewhere else, without compromising quality.

None of the employers that 60 Minutes talked with are expecting the schools and colleges to train their employees to run their machines.  They expect to do that themselves.  But they do expect schools and colleges to teach applicants how to read complex material, write clear expository prose, analyze problems and solve them, have a sound command of the kind of math topics usually found in high school math texts and the ability to use that math in the kinds of situations that employers face and so on.  It is discouraging that it is so hard for a company like Click Bond to find such people in a state like Nevada where so many are unemployed and desperate for work.

I am always heartened when I see great teaching.  But, all too often, I sit in the back of classrooms saddened at the mistakes made by teachers of science, at the quality of writing that routinely gets good grades, at the poor teaching of mathematics that I see.  The skills gap is not a mismatch between the vocational skills that are taught and the vocational skills that are needed.  It is not a failure of counseling or student choices.  It is a failure to provide the kind and quality of basic education that is the foundation of good vocational training.

These failures are fundamental.  They will not be solved with accountability systems and more measuring.  They will only be solved with a high quality curriculum, first-rate teachers, strong leadership, good preschool education, and the right kind of support for students who need extra help to make it to high standards.

It is quite unreasonable to expect our employers to supply any of these things.  If we do, if we force them to do these things in order to stay in business, we will force them to charge so much for the products they make and services they render that we will drive them out of business.  And that will not be good for any of us.
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