Bridging the Skills Gap

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Bridging the Skills Gap_Brave businessman walking on rope above mountain gap

It was reported this week the “skills gap is real and getting worse.”  While it certainly gives HR professionals a reason to pause, SHRM can back up the claim with data.  52 percent of HR professionals, according to their Skills Gap Survey, said the skills gap has worsened or greatly worsened in the past two years.

That’s not all.  The recent unemployment report from the federal government essentially adds insult to injury.

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“There are 7 million job openings right now and, if you go by the unemployment count, roughly 6.2-6.3 million people looking for work which means we literally have more jobs than we have people able to fill them,” SHRM president and CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. told the HR Exchange Network in an interview.

Additionally, SHRM reports 83 percent of HR professionals say they have noticed a decrease in the quality of job applicants, with one-third citing a lack of needed technical skills.

Bridging the Skills Gap

Where is the most significant need when it comes to bridging the skills gap?  It’s most evident, according to SHRM, is in the trades, middle-skilled positions and highly skilled STEM positions. 

  • Carpentry, plumbing, welding and machining are the technical abilities most lacking in the workforce. 
  • Data analysis, science, engineering, medical and finance are other areas in short supply.

Knowing that, how are HR professionals addressing the talent shortage?  Most are expanding their advertising efforts and outsourcing recruiting.  Other strategies include:

  • Providing onsite training to employees (seminars and training programs);
  • Starting or expanding training programs to help improve skills of new hires;
  • Providing offsite training to employees (workshops and development programs);
  • Increasing compensation. 

Bridging the Skills Gap between Work and Education

Based on these skills gap statistics and the reality that the United States is seeing the number of jobs increase and the candidate pool not increase sufficiently enough, how can HR find the workers needed to compete in their respective industries?

There are several groups to pull from, but the most significant one is full of people sitting behind desks… school desks that is.

“Ultimately, this is a PK-12 challenge,” Taylor said.  “We are actually doing a poor job preparing kids, and we hear this all the time from employers.”

Taking it a step further, Taylor said not every child needs or wants a college education.  In fact, the areas that have the most critical need right now don’t require a higher education, but the vocational education opportunities are not there.

“We got away from all of those trade job education tracks because we thought manufacturing was gone forever,” Taylor explained.  “Now manufacturing jobs are back and we don’t have anyone to do them.  Now the demand is there, but these kids coming through do not have the skills for the job.  It really is an interesting dilemma.”

Having said that, education leaders will have to deal with this new education challenge.

“There’s going to be a call out on the K-12 education system to do a better job preparing kids with the basic skills that they need; reading, writing, thinking… those skills are absolutely necessary in the workforce and employers are saying, frankly, the problem is there’s not enough of them but the ones that there are aren’t really work-ready,” Taylor said.

The real issue here is education is locally funded.  There is no real power available to anyone outside of the local school board to change how these students are educated.  Taylor said the federal government cannot simply mandate it as the states will have nothing to do with it and will react negatively to the action.  Nor can employers go into a school system and ask for these changes.  They can lobby for them, but at the end of the day, it goes back to the local school board to make the decision.

And that’s a difficult pill to swallow.

“The K-12 system has been something we’ve historically been able to rely on, and it’s frustrating, it has to be for employers who pay high taxes and for people who pay high taxes,” Taylor said.  “My gosh, after all this investment into education, people are still showing up on our door steps unable to write basic notes and to do basic math calculations.  That’s a problem.”

So, what’s the remedy?  Taylor said look to the economy and expect market pressure to send the message loud and clear.

“If you want business to come and locate in your market, you’ve got to make sure they will have a high-quality work force from which to recruit,” Taylor said.

Case and point:  Amazon.

“So, Amazon had to pick a city to relocate to and ended up in Long Island City and right outside of Crystal City, Virginia,” Taylor said.  “What Amazon will say to you is one of the most significant factors they looked at was the quality of public education in that market because they were going to need employees and many of these employees were not high skilled employees.  They were call center reps, but to answer the phone, you’ve got to be able to speak properly and write properly.  So they looked very closely at public schools.”

Bridging the Skills Gap Now

Even if schools changed their curriculums today, it would take a few years to develop a class of students ready to meet the hiring needs of today.   In the meantime, HR has to essentially create adults out of thin air.  Or do they?  Taylor says HR, at least for now, is going to have to look to other groups to find the talent they need including: 

  1. Older or retired workers
  2. The formerly incarcerated
  3. Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

Coming up, SHRM president and CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. will explain the business case for hiring employees from these groups and why diversity plays a role in the resulting strategy.


Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. is the President of SHRM.  He will be a panelist in a discussion on Diversity and Inclusion during HR Exchange LIVE, a free-to-attend online event for HR professionals.  For more information and to register, click here.


*The Society for Human Resources Management contributed to this report.

Photo courtesy:  Stock Photo Secrets