Staffing Management

There’s Skill Involved in Solving the Skill Gap

By Matt Ferguson

Mar. 20, 2016

We're facing a skills crisis in America. Nearly 15 million people in the U.S. want to work, but they can’t find jobs.

And at the same time, around half of employers say they have job vacancies, but they can’t find qualified candidates to fill them, according to a Harris Interactive Inc. poll for CareerBuilder. Among information technology and health care employers, the problem is even more pronounced. There’s a huge disconnect that can have a paralyzing effect on business and the economy.

Among companies with extended job vacancies of 12 weeks or longer, 34 percent reported a loss in revenue while others pointed to a lower quality of work, higher employee turnover and deficiencies in customer service, according to the poll.

This gap will only become more problematic in years to come. The skills for different occupations are evolving, often requiring college-educated labor for positions that were previously held by high school graduates. The number of high-skill jobs that will need to be filled by 2020 is equal to the populations of Chicago and Houston combined.

Jobs are growing at an accelerated rate in the STEM-related fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — and other areas, but degree completions and retraining efforts aren’t keeping pace. On top of this, despite falling unemployment, college grads age 22 to 27 are stuck in low-paying jobs and account for 40 percent of the unemployment rate. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the percentage of young people with a bachelor’s degree languishing in low-skill, low-paying jobs is 44 percent, a 20-year high.

Bridging the skills gap and addressing chronic underemployment can have an exponentially positive effect on workers, businesses and the communities they serve. The most sustainable and thriving communities are those with good jobs. That’s why corporate America needs to take a more active role in cultivating the talents of today’s and tomorrow’s generations of workers. Here are three ways your organization can make a difference.

Adding Data to Address the Student Skill Gap

Here’s what CareerBuilder is doing to mend the skills gap.

We need to arm students with good data. To this end, CareerBuilder and our economists at Economic Modeling Specialists International created Find Your Calling, a free website to help students discover career and education options based on data from more than 100 employment resources.

Visitors to the website start with a simple, interactive personality test for careers. Students are then presented with careers that match their interests with details ranging from job growth projections, salary ranges and businesses that are hiring to college programs they can apply to today.

The goal is to provide more data-driven career choices that are aligned with demand. The more information and outreach businesses can provide, the better our chances of establishing a pipeline of future talent.

In order for retraining efforts to gain momentum, there needs to be an acceleration of businesses expanding or enhancing training and development programs for new and current employees. This can be easier said than done.

We also initiated a program with similar goals that provides a six-month, paid internship in technology to the long-term unemployed — many with no technical background. Ten or more interns receive formal classroom training and then spend six months embedded within a CareerBuilder team working on real projects.

CareerBuilder partners with recruiters from the start to help place interns once their internship is over, and 90 percent have been placed into a job that uses the skills they have learned during this program at companies such as, Accenture, Dell Inc. and Dish Network. We purposely placed the interns in jobs outside of our company in the hopes of showing businesses that you can provide very marketable skills in technology to workers in a relatively short period of time.

—Matt Ferguson

1. Promote where the jobs are.

The skills gap in our country is in large part an information gap — many young people are unaware of jobs that are in high demand, pay well and are aligned with what they’re passionate about. In a separate Harris poll for CareerBuilder, nearly 1 in 4 high school seniors (24 percent) said they have no idea what career they want to pursue.  (Editor’s note: The author is CareerBuilder’s CEO.) Of high school seniors who have pinpointed a desired profession, 23 percent said they made their career choice based on something they saw on TV or in a movie.

Businesses need to do a better job of informing students of fast-growing fields, so they can discover career options that not only provide job security but also pay well. We need to get in front of students at an early age. These are conversations that should be taking place in elementary schools, not just high schools and colleges.

Tech companies such as Microsoft Corp. and Facebook Inc. have programs to promote STEM careers in schools. Last September, Microsoft announced it would be investing $75 million over the next three years on initiatives to increase access to computer science education for youth. With the new investment, nonprofit organizations will receive donations and resources from Microsoft, and the tech giant will expand its outreach into high schools through its Technology Education and Literacy in Schools initiative, or TEALS. It’s a major expansion of the company’s YouthSpark program, a global initiative to increase access for all youth to further their STEM education, empowering them to achieve more for themselves, their families and their communities.

Similarly, last October Facebook announced that in an attempt to get students more involved with meaningful learning, the online social networking service and Summit Public Schools, which has schools in California and Washington, have created a Personal Learning Platform giving students control over their learning. Students start by working with teachers to set long-term goals — such as “become an investigative journalist” or “learn to code” — and then lay out a plan to achieve them over the course of many years. Students can then visualize and track all of their coursework as a path toward these goals, connecting their daily decisions to their long-term aspirations. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has also backed for-profit startup Altschool, which provides pre-kindergarten through eighth grade education in small schools it calls microschools. When a child joins, the school creates a profile of the child’s interests, strengths and weaknesses, which is then used to create a personalized learning plan. The child is then given a weekly list of individual and group activities and exercises to complete in order to meet their goals.

A few city and state governments are also allocating resources to support tech in schools. Take New York as an example: The city recently unveiled a plan to offer computer science to all students within the public school system within the next decade. More initiatives like this need to be launched.

2. Create the perfect candidate.

Businesses also need to invest in retraining the current workforce to create the perfect hire rather than waiting for one to come along. Now, the good news is half of U.S. companies are already taking action. In a 2014 Harris poll, 54 percent said they have trained workers who have no experience in their industry or field and hired them. Forty-six percent of employers have hired a low-skill worker and trained them for a higher-skill job within the last two years.

This is encouraging, but the fact remains that while half of employers are retraining workers, half are not. Efforts need to be more widespread.

To ensure workers have the resources they need to excel in today’s workforce, ADP, an HR, benefits and payroll services provider, has built a culture around continuous education, training and skills development for all employees, regardless of their position or time with the company, encouraging them to go back to school and develop the skills that are in line with the discipline of their jobs. The company has also made an effort to ensure today’s students are prepared to be tomorrow’s workers, creating strategic partnerships with various organizations — such as the Women in Technology International — to raise awareness about the opportunities in the STEM fields.

Despite having the recession behind us, many businesses are still in a frenetic state of upheaval, reorganization and trying to do more with less. In this environment, managers and employees tend to be most focused on essential day-to-day operations and less interested in longer-term activities perceived as having less certain, immediate payback. This is a mistake.

Training is a competitive advantage in terms of hiring and retention. That said, the kind of training an employee receives is very important. Allowing an employee to pass through a simple 101 training course does not ensure skill-building. In order for training to be beneficial, it must be a companywide priority receiving support on all levels. If it’s presented as an essential component to future success, training goes from an option to an imperative where there is urgency and accountability.

At professional services firm KPMG, the company has established a general skills framework to promote balanced development and ensure that, at every stage of a career, a professional is building a blend of technical, business and leadership skills. To keep curriculum fresh, the firm regularly reassesses skills needs and every year focuses its efforts on areas where it anticipates changes to be especially imminent. And to get ahead, KPMG looks for opportunities to develop employees not only for their current roles, but also future ones as well. Skills once taught in new manager training are now for talent on the road to becoming managers in the future. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach focused on deficiencies, this model focuses on opportunities.

3. Join forces with educators.

Partnerships between universities, corporate training organizations and corporations aren’t new. IBM Corp. has been teaming up with universities since the early days of computer science education more than 70 years ago. But, as the debate over the skills gap accelerates, collaborations between educational facilities and businesses should become more sophisticated and evolve to meet shifting economic, marketplace and educational needs. As the next-generation partnerships are anointed, companies can help guide the formation of curriculum so the workforce of the future can keep up with rapid technological changes.

Many companies are taking advantage of these partnerships already. For example, in 2014 IBM partnered with 28 business schools and universities to create material that helped prepare students for the 4.4 million jobs the company created worldwide to support big data in 2015.

Likewise, educational technology company Coursera Inc. launched a Global Skills Initiative in 2014, a program aimed at bringing top companies and universities togetherto advance access to job-relevant skills around the world. After identifying a high-demand content area, companies are paired with a Coursera partner university that is responsible for the academic expertise, creation of course materials and the overall learner experience.

Still, there are more opportunities for growth. According to research by my company, CareerBuilder, while employers agree that one of the biggest opportunities to bridge the skills gap is to increase the discourse between individual companies and colleges and universities, and most academics (96 percent) agree that their institutions should be talking to employers about the skill sets they require, more than half (55 percent) say this only happens a little or not at all.

Further, while 54 percent of academics said they are adjusting their curriculum based on local demands or shifts among employers, the speed at which they can incorporate those changes remains a challenge. More than half of those changing curriculum (56 percent) say it will take at least a year to implement changes while nearly 1 in 5 (18 percent) say it will likely take three to five years.

Another way to continue to push educational reform and close the skills gap is to work with organizations operating outside of traditional academic institutions. For example:

Innovate+Educate is an industry-led nonprofit implementing research-based strategies to close the national skills gap and bridge the opportunity divide.

I.c. stars is a workforce development organization that identifies, trains and jump-starts technology careers for low-income adults who, although lacking access to education and employment, demonstrate extraordinary potential or success in the business world.

Upwardly Global is a nonprofit that helps work-authorized, skilled immigrants rebuild their professional careers in the U.S.

Business leaders have a promising opportunity to bridge the skills gap and transform the nation’s ability to compete as well as generate good-paying jobs. But to do this, coordinated work among employers, educators and policymakers will be essential, and employers will need to rethink their role in nurturing talent and developing skills in their communities, industries and regions.

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