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Are We Worrying About the Wrong ‘Skills Gap’?

There’s been quite a lot of dialogue in recent years about the ‘Skills Gap’, and the ‘War for Talent’, most of which is a lamentation about the finite proportion of in-demand, skilled workers that our organizations are playing tug-of-war over. If and why this gap persists is a subject of some controversy, but that’s not what this post is about. It’s about a different, and undoubtedly real skills gap, one that HR and business leaders should be truly worried about. Rather than existing at the narrow pinnacle of the workforce ‘pyramid’, it’s found below, eroding its crumbling base.

Basic literacy and numeracy skills are declining in North America, even as college and University enrollment rises. I’m not talking about the ability to write poetry or do calculus- I am talking about the essential skills that are needed by the majority of our workforce to perform everyday tasks, like write an e-mail or review an invoice. These are the people who will be left behind, unable to fully participate in the ‘knowledge economy’, or contribute meaningfully to the modern organization.

Like me, you may have come across some of these recent statistics and figures, but allow me to paint you the full and dreary picture:

  • According to 2008 research referenced in a recent Globe & Mail article, 46 per cent of first-year California State University students needed writing help
  • A study published in 2009 in the journal Current Issues in Education found that a group of 97 U.S. masters and doctoral students did no better in a diagnostic writing test than the typical college-bound high school senior
  • An April 2012 study of basic literacy skills in Canada, the U.S and Norway found a decline in these skills in more chronologically recent groups of graduates
  • Research and analysis reported in the 2013 Spring edition of Canadian Learning Journal reports that large portions of the national talent pool lack the requisite literacy and numeracy skill levels to acquire and apply new technical skills, including 60% of current college-level learners and 9% of University-level learners

Potential Squandered

Unfortunately, literacy and numeracy are not especially sexy topics for business and HR professionals. But our unwillingness to take up this issue with seriousness ignores the significant returns that it could offer our organizations. Simply put, the tendency to focus our energy and anxiety exclusively on the so-called skills gap for specialized positions is a bit like letting our horses starve to death because we’re busy searching the Malaysian jungle for a unicorn.

Of course it’s not just about how this real skills gap impacts our companies right now, it’s about how these gaps cheat us of potential top talent. It’s clear that we can only expect the sought-after, top-tier ‘talent unicorns’ to become increasingly rare if we don’t give the masses the foundational skills that might allow them to develop into one of these specialized workers. That is, in the end this is a question of mobility into jobs and professions requiring a higher skill level. Indeed, the Conference Board of Canada reports that:

“Employees with higher literacy skills earn more income, are less likely to be unemployed, have greater opportunities for job mobility, are more likely to find full-time work, and are more likely to receive further training”

If schools are rubber stamping scads of graduates who lack fundamental skills, whose grades may still qualify them for admittance into post-graduate institutions that are ill-equipped to provide the required remedial education, and who then subsequently seek employment with organizations unwilling to invest in training, it might conceivably result in a situation that looks a whole lot like our current reality. That is, an escalating ‘educational arms race’ that still seems incapable of slaking the corporate thirst for talented, immediately productive workers at a variety of levels, while at the same time we witness a sea of frustrated job-seekers and workers whose school debt does not seem to be offering them much ROI.

What’s An Organization To Do?

As employers, where does this leave us? It is neither realistic nor desirable that all organizations would seek to remedy fundamental skill gaps across a broad swath of entry-level employees, although in certain environments this may prove to be an appropriate and worthwhile strategy. Typically though, to have impact on someone’s career trajectory this type of intervention would likely need to occur much earlier. What’s clear is that organizations do need to invest in targeted training where their individual employees have potential, but lack the immediately viable ability.

The other area in which I am convinced employers must act is through partnerships and advocacy with educational institutes and professional groups. If our schools are not producing the basic skills required to support our organizations and the economy, then schools and students must hear what is needed directly from employers. Whether this occurs through direct partnerships, or through professional associations that may represent the views of multiple organizations to educational institutes or directly to students themselves, there needs to be increased involvement from employers.

Image Credit: By LaurMG. (Own work.) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. ChristopherinHR #

    Like you this is the skills gap that really concerns me Jane.

    Thanks for painting the picture effectively and in terms that are actionable.

    July 2, 2013

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