Donald Fry: Employers: workplace skills gap driven by need for IT talent


By Donald C. Fry

It’s common these days for business CEOs and managers to complain that a “skills gap” exists in today’s workforce. I’ve heard numerous accounts of businesses that have job openings but are unable to fill them because they can’t find employees with the skills required for the jobs.

Part of the challenge is that the skills needed in the modern workforce go beyond the academic skills required to get accepted and to graduate from college, says one prominent expert.

“The academic skills demanded by many entry-level jobs today are at a higher level than the academic skills required for postsecondary education,” writes Willard R. Daggett, CEO of the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE), a New York-based education advocacy organization. “Some of those skills are not only more rigorous but also different from the skills needed for success in postsecondary education.”

How do employers define the skills gap?

The skills gap is generally driven by one key deficiency – lack of sufficient information technology skills, according to a February 2012 report by CompTIA, a leading information technology trade association. The skills gap has increased significantly over the past two years, said U.S. employers surveyed by the organization.

Employers nationally and in Maryland cite IT talent deficiencies in a range of occupational disciplines including cyber security, data management and computer science. It appears there’s a significant demand for computer knowledge and online savvy beyond Facebook, Twitter, texting and online games.

Employers also say they need more prospective employees with knowledge of science, especially chemistry and biology, and mathematics.

Others note a gap in college graduates with reading skills beyond literature. Students need to learn technical reading skills as well, experts suggest. (My own observation is that anyone who has ever tried to read a computer manual might argue technical writing skills are needed as well.)

“A new definition of literacy is required,” Daggett said. The problem is college graduates “do school. The skills needed to ‘do school’ do not necessarily connect well with the skill requirements of the 21st century workplace.”

Employers also look for entrepreneurial skills and interdisciplinary skills – a sense of how to apply their knowledge and skills in the real-world workplace. As one advocate put it, graduates need to know “how,” not just “what.”

What are the root causes of the skills gap? Generally, today’s information-based workplace is faster-paced and more automated than the environment to which students are exposed in college, experts say.

Other employers and educators cite a shortage of quality tech space and other hands-on resources for professional development in higher education institutions.

Almost universally, employers also say it’s not just technical skills that are in short supply among job seekers, but also the so-called “soft skills.” They cite issues such as social and cognitive skills, work ethic, creative problem-solving, working as part of a team, verbal and written communication skills.

They also say too many young prospects do not know how to apply for a job or how to dress and act in a professional workplace.

Soft skills deficiencies range beyond what can simply be attributed to generational differences. It’s more than just old people complaining about young people.

Some think the “soft skills” gap is a matter of the older generation not teaching the younger generation what to expect in a professional work environment and how to behave at work.

In any case, it’s an issue the education sector has recognized for some time. Most Maryland colleges today offer, but do not necessarily require, student career development courses where resume and job search skills are taught along with job interview skills, professional behavior and how to dress for work.

All Maryland colleges offer career development assistance, as do most high schools, many of which collaborate with organizations such as the CollegeBound Foundation in Baltimore City to help high school students prepare for and enroll in college.

What can the business sector do close the skills gap? Businesses must ensure they are fully engaged in efforts to address the gap. A basic checklist for Maryland business involvement could include:

Participate in initiatives to strengthen education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects. Examples of such engagement could include working with K-12 education leaders to develop a strong, relevant STEM curriculum.

Business can also join private-sector STEM efforts such as the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education’s speakers bureau where business executives visit middle schools to talk to students about careers, or they can participate on the Greater Baltimore Committee’s Education and Workforce Committee that advocates, among other things, for better coordination of Maryland’s K-12 and higher education curriculums in Maryland.

Develop substantive internship opportunities for high school and college students. In Maryland, employers can become active in initiatives such as Baltimore City’s “Hire One Youth” program. Or they can participate in other private and public internship initiatives or work with the Governor’s Workforce Investment Board or local workforce investment affiliates.

Help educators strengthen student access to state-of-the-art workshop facilities. High schools and colleges are in constant need of resources and opportunities for young people to gain hands-on experiences in real-world technology workshops and facilities related to other knowledge-based professions.

Work closely with community colleges. Maryland’s community colleges are adept at developing timely certificate courses and other avenues for adult learners in many technical occupations. Among other things, such courses prepare workers for a significant number of STEM-related jobs that do not require four-year degrees.

These are just a few suggestions for businesses to get involved in better preparing Maryland’s young people for the workplace.

When it comes to the skills gap, the business community recognizes the specifics of the problem. In developing a strong, educated and well-prepared workforce that is essential for Maryland’s innovation economy to thrive, businesses must be a big part of the solution.

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