College Education and the Job Market – Does a Skills Gap Exist?

College Education and Jobs - Does a Skills Gap Exist

Amidst the many articles and reports about the current state of the economy, another trend is emerging that may have a direct bearing on the degree program that you are pursuing. It’s called a skills gap and is related to the reality recent graduates face as they enter the job market and search for employment. It’s important for you to understand this issue if you are working on a degree now or will graduate soon, so that you can prepare and plan ahead for your potential career options.

The Skills Gap

Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown University analyzed the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data and found that “that of the nearly 50 million new jobs the BLS projects to be created by 2018, 30 million will require recognized postsecondary credentials." However, “there will be three million too few workers with these credentials.” Many of the articles I’ve reviewed about this issue have quickly pointed blame at educational institutions; however, the skills gap is not about students obtaining a degree that has little relevance to the real world. There are much more important issues involved.

In a Wall Street Journal article How to Close the Skills Gap, a report from the National Commission on Adult Literacy was discussed. In this report it was noted that “90 million adults have literacy skills so low that success in postsecondary education and training is becoming more and more challenging.” The report further points to falling high school graduation rates, which is estimated at 1.2 million Americans every year.

Another study Across the Great Divide, sponsored by Corporate Voices for Working Families and Civic Enterprises, also confirmed this underlying issue. It was concluded that “there are two key misperceptions that are hindering the U.S. from closing the divide between the readiness of the work force and the skills employers are looking for.” The first is a need for short-term degrees that is often overlooked and the other is a “need to broaden the national focus from college access to the necessity for college completion.”

It’s not enough in this economy for students to start a degree program, they need to finish it if there will be career options available in the job market – and an associate’s degree can even provide job opportunities, depending upon the field of study.  
Survey Says…

In December 2011 a survey conducted by FTI Consulting was released by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS). The participants included over 1,000 people involved in the hiring decision process, representing numerous industries throughout the United States. The questions were focused on knowledge and skillsets that job candidates need for success in the job market.

The survey results indicated “that the post-secondary education system could do a better job preparing students for the workplace.” More specifically, 45% of participants held a belief that the education system needs to prepare students for the workplace and 55% indicated a preference for a “broad-based education” that allowed students to decide upon the best career options.
The study did not make specific policy recommendations or suggestions for improving the gap; however, it did indicate that “the severity of the skills gap suggests that public and college education systems are failing to prepare students for ‘real world’ jobs, particularly in mathematics and critical thinking.”

As an educator I take issue with the reference to critical thinking as this is a skill that is strongly emphasized within traditional on-ground schools, as well as online schools. For my online classes I stress the importance of mastering critical analysis and relating the course concepts to the real world through case studies and relevant issues – within class discussions and written assignments.

Pointing the Finger  

There are recent challenges related to resolving the gap:

1. In Are Colleges or Businesses Responsible for Fixing the Employment Skills Gap?, the relationship between educational institutions and employers was addressed. It was noted that that both need to be working together “to ensure college students are learning both industry-specific skills—whether through internships or apprenticeships—while also ensuring that they acquire solid foundational skills.”  

2. Jon Marcus, a higher education writer for the Times Higher Education magazine, noted in Putting College Degrees to Work “at a time when higher education and industry should be talking to each other, they speak different languages – and work at vastly different speeds,” because “it can take a year or more for a college or university to approve a new program.”

Marcus also talks about the response from educational institutions, which includes the following points:
A.    What employers really “want in their employees is creative thinking, innovation, and an ability to write and speak well.”
B.    “Companies that talk about the value of employee education have been cutting tuition reimbursement.” There is a reference made to information obtained from the Society for Human Resource Management that the “number of employers who provide this benefit has fallen from nearly 70 percent to less than 60 percent.”

Potential Solutions

It seems that the challenge is deciding upon what employers need so that students know how to adequately prepare. What this indicates is that students need to clearly define their career interests and goals, and then research the potential career options that would be available once the degree has been completed. This approach is confirmed by an article in the Wall Street Journal, How to Close the Skills Gap:  “We also need to expand innovative approaches that have produced results, such as career pathways programs that provide labor-market information to students and job seekers about in-demand jobs, and the skills and education necessary to get them.” This suggests involvement by employers (make up-to-date job information easily accessible for students or potential job candidates) and students (don’t start a degree program without first doing your research).

Andy Decker, senior regional vice president for Robert Half International, states in How Job Seekers Can Bridge Workplace Skills Gap that the unemployment rate for “college-degreed workers over 25 is at 4.4 percent, so anyone posting a job that requires a college degree will have a smaller applicant pool.” His recommendation for students is to keep up with technology and technological advances and seek membership in professional organizations for the purpose of networking. In addition, if you have a gap in your work history, Decker suggests “volunteering at nonprofits, churches or professional organizations” as a means of demonstrating that you have valuable skillsets and you are still using those skills.
From my experience, online students may have an advantage in the marketplace as they are often employed while working towards a degree, to improve their career opportunities. As noted in Putting College Degrees to Work, while “for-profit schools may be criticized, they are indisputably better than conventional higher education at providing what students increasingly want – accelerated study at convenient times and places that is geared toward landing a job.”

It is likely that there will always be a skills gap in the job market, especially if students enter a degree program without thought or research having been done to determine what their career options may be. There are valuable resources most schools offer to assist you with this research and include career centers and career counselors. If you have clearly defined your career goals, matched your interests to a career field that has steady employment opportunities, and selected a degree that aligns with the job market, you will make an informed decision and reduce the likelihood of experiencing a skills gap when you graduate.

Share your thoughts about the issue of a skills gap via Twitter @DrBruceJ.

Photo © Justin Stang/Corbis

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