The Skills Gap
The phrase ‘skills gap’ is one that is often used, and some might say over-used, in the news media.
But what does 'The Skills Gap' really mean? And is it as important as the news reports would have you believe?
This page takes a look at some of the evidence and suggests ways in which you can develop your core skills to avoid falling foul of the ‘skills gap’.
What is the Skills Gap?
The ‘skills gap’ is the phrase used to describe the difference between the skills that employers want, as shown by their job advertisements, and those that are available from workers looking for a job.
In the US at the end of July 2014, there were 4.7 million jobs advertised, and 9.7 million people looking for a job: more than two for every job advertised.
Yet employers still complain that they cannot fill jobs with people with the right skills.
The accountancy and consulting firm PwC estimates that around one third of companies have identified a shortage of suitably-skilled employees as a barrier to growth. This is the skills gap.
The Nature of the Skills Gap
What is really interesting about the conversation around the skills gap is that there is no real agreement about what skills are unavailable.
- An OECD report suggests that the UK now has more graduates than non-graduates in the job market. However, the same report notes that high levels of literacy are more likely in Finland, Sweden and Japan. In other words, the higher levels of qualification are not matched with higher levels of basic skills like numeracy and literacy.
- IT skills are often cited as a shortage area. A recent report from Harvey Nash suggesting that almost two thirds of chief information officers responding to a survey were concerned that lack of skills in IT would hold back their companies. However, the key shortages were in Project Management and Change Management, areas not traditionally considered ‘IT’ skills.
Given the lack of agreement on precisely which skills are in short supply, it’s not surprising to find that there’s also no consensus about why there is a skills gap. However, there are plenty of theories about it, and also about how to improve matters. Some commentators have even gone so far as to suggest that it’s not so much a skills gap as a problem with employers’ expectations.
One theory, put forward by a management academic called Peter Capelli at the Wharton School, is that employers no longer provide training for their staff.
For much of the last century, Capelli believes, companies hired graduates and then trained them to do the job. But with changes in the job and careers market, including the death of ‘a job for life’, has come a reluctance to invest in the workforce. Companies fear that they will provide training only for staff to leave and join their competitors as soon as they become ‘useful’.
Instead, companies want to recruit ‘job-ready’ employees, those who can ‘hit the ground running’. Experience is therefore much more valuable than potential.
A linked aspect is the rise in degrees and the consequent fall in vocational training and education. Graduates now have higher qualifications but fewer ‘workplace skills’: put simply, they know more, but can do less.
But the good news is that in industries with serious skills shortages, such as IT, senior managers have reported that they now actively offer career support and development, including training, to staff identified as having potential for future leadership roles.
This support may take the form of mentoring and other informal support, rather than formal, off-site training programmes as might have been the case in the past, but it’s a sign that employers are starting to realise that the remedy to their skills gap might just be in their own hands.
What can you do on a personal level to ensure that you don’t fall foul of the skills gap?
There are two main groups of people who are most likely to fall into the ‘skills gap’: new graduates and those who have been made redundant, especially older workers. Why?
- New graduates, by their very nature, tend to have very little work experience. They therefore lack proof that they have the soft skills needed to get on in the workplace.
- There tends to be a stigma attached to those made redundant, especially if they have worked in one place for a long time. Potential employers tend to ask themselves the question ‘Why were they made redundant?’ Although they may have the soft skills necessary to build good relationships, have they kept up to date with the hard skills and the technical knowledge required?
You can’t do anything about what other people believe on a general level.
But you can do something about how you demonstrate that you can do the job.
Your first step to addressing your personal skills gap is to work out what you are good at, and what you are less good at.
Take a look at what skills are required for the jobs that you want and do a self-assessment against the criteria. Be honest with yourself. What are you good at, and what are you not good at? Can you demonstrate that you are good at the key skills?
There are a number of tools online to help with this. For example, use our Interpersonal Skills Self-Assessment to assess areas of weakness and strength, and our Leadership Styles Questionnaire to find out what sort of leader you are, and where you could benefit from further development. If you think you lack basic numeracy skills, take the National Numeracy Challenge to see if this is the case.
The second step is to address the shortages.
Remember, though, that there is no substitute for experience. If you can’t persuade people to pay you without the experience, then you may need to do some unpaid or voluntary work for a while. There is a reason why having completed an internship is the most valued attribute in a potential graduate recruit, but experience gained from voluntary work or from running a club or society can also be highly relevant.
Finally, you need to think about how you present yourself to potential employers.
Polish your CV or résumé, improve your covering letter and LinkedIn profile, and you may find that many of your problems resolve themselves. A strong CV should get you the foot in the door that you need to demonstrate that you’re capable.
Also look at our pages on Interview Skills to see if you can improve the way that you present yourself in person.
Making Yourself Attractive to Employers
There is no doubt that many companies believe that they need skills which are unavailable in the workforce.
The best way to get a job, then, is to acquire those skills which others do not have, and then demonstrate to potential employers that you have done so.