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A Closer Look at Skills Mismatch in Workplace

For the past four years, there has been a steady stream of news and commentary about the disconnect between what employers are looking for and what workers have to offer. The latest entry into this debate was "Looking at Education for Clues on Structural Unemployment" (The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 9).

According to the article, the mismatch is a "classic example of what economists call a 'structural' issue in the labor market. In time, workers will develop the skills the job market needs - or employers will readjust their needs to the skills workers have available - but that process is slow. In the meantime, unemployment will remain high."

The basis for this view was a study by the Brookings Institution. The authors Jonathan Rothwell and Alan Berube looked at the "education gap", which is the difference between the "level of education that employers are looking for, on average, and the level of education that potential workers actually have."

This is a troubling charge, but without further elaboration it's hard to know how to evaluate it. For one thing, what specific wherewithal is in short supply? Is it predominantly in STEM, or does it involve other fields as well? Norm Augustine, a former undersecretary of the Army and retired CEO of Lockheed Martin, argued that it includes history ("The Education Our Economy Needs," The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 21). Bloomberg Businessweek on Sept. 14 attempted to clarify the issue in "Can Retraining Give the Unemployed a Second Chance?" It placed the skills mismatch at a quarter of the 9.1 percent unemployment rate, based on an International Monetary Fund paper issued in May.

But the explanation fails to take into account the nuances of the situation. Job losses have been "far more severe in middle-skilled white- and blue-collar jobs than in either high-skill, white-collar jobs or in low-skill service occupations. Indeed, from 2007 through 2009, total employment in professional, managerial, and highly skilled technical positions was essentially unchanged," according to a 2010 white paper by MIT economist David Autor ("Can the Middle Class Be Saved?" The Atlantic, Sept. 2011).

Further, the complaint raises the age-old question about the purpose of education. Business has always wanted schools to train their employees so that it doesn't have to. A survey by Nielsen Co. of 100 top executives at U.S. manufacturing companies found that they expect to spend at least $100 million each over the next five years to fill the gaps left by retiring baby boomer factory workers ("Skills gap looms at U.S. factories as boomers retire," The Globe and Mail, Sept. 8).

Education, however, is more than just about preparing students for the workplace. This is particularly so because as many as 80 percent of the jobs that kindergartners will hold as adults don't yet exist, according to remarks made by futurist Ed Barlow before the Industrial Asset Management Council in Oct. 2007. Of course, neither Barlow nor anyone else knows what the future holds, a point underscored by Christopher L. Doyle in "Let's Stop Forecasting 21st-Century Skills" (Commentary, Education Week, Sept. 14).

Public schools have become a convenient whipping boy for virtually all the ills afflicting the country. I agree that it's important to prepare students to earn a living. But the trouble is that the nature of jobs is rapidly changing. As a result, what is in demand today is passe tomorrow. That's why it's a mistake to put all our eggs in one basket by trying to guess what the future needs of the country will be and then blame schools when they don't deliver what is needed.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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