The ‘Skills Gap’ May Be Illusory, but the Need for Lifelong Learning Is Real
The “skills gap” has long been mentioned as a significant feature of the U.S. economy. A September 2014 survey by Business Roundtable showed that 52 percent of member CEOs considered a skills shortage to be “problematic” or “very problematic.” The conventional wisdom was that employers could not find employees to meet their needs in terms of essential skills and experience because of scarce supply caused by weaknesses in the education system mismatched with the demands of a workplace characterized by a rapid rate of technological change.
Increasingly, a more nuanced view is emerging. The economist Paul Krugman, for one, in his New York Times op-ed column of Feb. 23, 2015, disputes “the argument that educational failings are at the root of still-weak job creation” as “very much at odds with the evidence.”
Peter Cappelli was one of the first to challenge the prevalent view. In his 2012 book “Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs,” Cappelli says that the “skills gap” idea is illusory. U.S. schools may not be at the absolute top compared to peer countries, but its education system is sound. In addition, the skills and behaviors that businesses most frequently cite as important for prospective employees – accountability, self-motivation and a strong work ethic – are not explicitly taught in schools at all. Cappelli argues that companies could hire for “work attitudes and self-management skills” and invest more in initial and continuing training. He develops the thesis that this simply makes economic sense, and in the last chapter discusses some models and programs to encourage more job training.
The book was inspired after Cappelli, a professor of management at the Wharton School and co-director of the National Center on the Educational Quality of the Workforce during the Bush and Clinton administrations, wrote a series of columns for Human Resources Executive magazine, followed by an October 2011 article, “Why Companies Aren’t Getting the Employees They Need,” in the Wall Street Journal. This article generated more than 500 comments.
Cappelli argues that companies often do not pursue their own best interests in the hiring process. Specifically, he finds that software used to screen applicants has become one of the major barriers to efficient hiring. Automated screening – called Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS), “resume robots” or “resume screening systems” – now serves as the first hurdle applicants face, including at more than 90 percent of the Fortune 500 companies, by some estimates. These systems allow so many criteria to be used as job requirements that the ability of anyone to meet them all can be almost impossible. It is to be hoped that more sophistication has been introduced since 2012!
What is the job seeker to do in such an environment? The two lessons might be: Understand the essential features of automated resume screening, and continue lifelong learning because, until Cappelli’s recommendations are more fully followed, you can’t expect employers to vigorously invest in training.
Cappelli suggests seven rules to “beat the software,” echoed by other experts. Some of these rules have to do with formatting. He recommends using conventional formats: a sans serif font like Verdana or Tahoma instead of serif like Times New Roman or Cambria. Your postal address should be included, but not in a header, because the screening software may not reach into headers and footers. Other formatting rules are “never include graphics” and “submit your resume in text format” not PDF. Regarding the substance of the resume, Cappelli recommends a separate resume for each job application in order to tailor it to the language of the job description. It is best to remember that the final audience will be people, so simple parroting of the job description is to be avoided. (And it is always possible that additional jobs may exist, or that the precise role to be filled is in flux.) It is important to be honest. Finally, Cappelli suggests that rather than simply listing skills, the job seeker should “put it in context” – for example, describe how you used a particular software rather than relying only on a list.
If the old conventional wisdom was that the economy suffers from a “skills gap,” the new wisdom emphasizes the need for lifelong learning. One way to articulate this is to say that individuals need to be “CEO of their own career,” as suggested by Liz Ryan in an Aug. 18, 2016, Forbes.com article titled “The Most Serious Skill Gap of All.”
However, a telling statistic derived from the “Springboard Project” of the Business Roundtable is that while 55 percent say they “know what skills their job will require in the future and it would be worthwhile to invest in those skills now,” the rest either say they do not know what skills will be required or what the payoff to training might be. And Cappelli thinks the percentage who do know is “quite likely overstated” due to the tendency for optimism. A logical conclusion that can be drawn from these statistics: It will continue to be valuable for the job seeker to be part of a community of lifelong learners and to seek counsel from professionals experienced with helping people realize their full potential in the business world.
Victoria Carter, after a career as an actuary, is reinventing herself as an economic evaluator of social programs. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.