Research sheds light on Wisconsin’s ‘skills gap’

The debate over the “skills gap” focuses on jobs that remain unfilled because American workers supposedly lack the proper training. Those who argue for a skills gap point to failings in the higher education system, claiming it doesn’t prepare students for in-demand careers.

Matthew Hora, associate professor of adult teaching and learning at University of Wisconsin-Madison Continuing Studies, is skeptical of this perspective. Hora and his colleagues at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research conducted interviews at Wisconsin’s biotechnology and advanced manufacturing industries, as well as at state colleges and universities. They asked educators, administrators, chief executive officers, plant managers, and human resources directors about the skills necessary to succeed in today’s job market—and got answers that contradict the skills-gap narrative.

Matthew Hora found that Wisconsin employers seek not just technical knowledge, but a broad range of skills involving lifelong learning.
Matthew Hora found that Wisconsin employers want not just technical knowledge, but a broad range of skills involving lifelong learning.

“What we found in our research—and labor market economists have also found—is the basic assumptions underlying the statement of a skills gap are so flawed that we need to retire the term and think in a far more nuanced fashion about issues facing higher education and the labor market,” Hora said in a recent interview on Wisconsin Public Television’s Here and Now.

Wanted: Well-rounded professionals

Discussions of the skills gap often center on the technical requirements for specific occupations. But Hora discovered that, in reality, employers seek a broad range of competencies that involve lifelong learning.

“What we heard from business owners and human resources professionals is that they wanted things like oral and written communication, critical thinking, and teamwork, especially the ability to work across different cultural groups as Wisconsin and the United States become more ethnically diverse,” he said. “Employers want people who have the desire and the ability to learn new things, new workplace procedures, new tasks.”

In other words, it’s not enough simply to put students through a short boot camp limited to technical skills. Higher education must cultivate well-rounded professionals, whether welders or accountants. And that will require a new approach to teaching and learning.

“Since the late ‘70s,” Hora said, “learning scientists and researchers have been arguing that we need to transform classroom teaching from the model of a lecture-centric transmission of information to passive students to a more actively engaged, hands-on, experiential education.”

Hora’s book Beyond the Skills Gap is due in November from Harvard Education Press. To learn more about his work, see here.