Origins of the Skills Gap

If the Skills Gap were a simple problem it would have been solved.  If it were only an hole in education offerings it would have been filled by non-profit or profit seeking educational schools who are operating in a very competitive environment.  If it could be solved by corporations by designing and implementing new recruiting or training programs it would have been solved.  If a simple government program at the state or national level could resolve it the compelling benefit to the GDP and, therefore, tax base should have made it attractive for passage.  But it isn’t simple.  There are many contributing factors and no solution can be unilaterally implemented and solve more than a small corner of the problem.


The good news of course is that education, corporations, government, non-profit foundations, unions, high-tech online education products, and the individual potential employees are all working tirelessly to contribute solutions.  As a result there are examples of success all around us.  


Unfortunately, the problem is not standing still.  Demographic trends alone, like the retiring of Baby Boomers, are making the problem worse even as programs and efforts are put in place.


Here I attempt to lay out the many (eight by my count) contributing factors to the Skills Gap.  I’m hopeful that by drafting this “map” of the problem it will be possible to see where to attack it most effectively.


My points are not fully databased or defensible or weighted as to their relative importance.  But they are each referred to in multiple sources and/or I have observed them personally.


Key factors contributing to the Skills Gap


  1. Aging of the skilled workforce

    1. This is true for the Baby Boom generation of technicians, field workers, nurses, auto mechanics,

    2. This is true for any aging society: Japan, Australia, developed European Societies, even China

  2. Attitude of American Youth toward work

    1. A prerequisite for skilled trades is building up a set of knowledge and hands-on skills over a period of time.  (Gladwell’s 10,000 hour argument)

    2. It takes discipline, focus and a commitment to a pathway that will not be fully realized for several years. (most apprenticeship programs require 3 - 7 years).

    3. This requirement does not mesh well with the Millennial and post-millennial view towards activities, goals, rewards

      • Things are moving so fast -- not worth trying to become an expert

      • What is real is electronic, on my phone, on the cloud

      • A 4-year college degree is the pathway to success

  3. Attitude of American youth toward hands-on work

    1. Most youth today are not familiar with physical objects (with the exception of sports and possibly art classes)

      • They view the world through the screen of their smart phone

      • They do not have jobs or chores which require building or repairing or maintaining things

        • Growing a vegetable garden

        • Mowing the lawn, trimming the edges,

        • Fixing the leaking drain, troubleshooting why there is no hot water, why the light switch makes a funny noise, how to tighten the brakes on their bicycle, changing the oil, washing the car.

        • Making a table, framing a piece of art work

    2. Youth, their parents, and society (at least the PME - professional-managerial elite) do not hold up physical object competence in high regard

      • Plumbers, gardeners, electricians, auto repair technicians

      • Health care workers

    3. Viewed as hard work, not intellectually challenging, a dead end job, without career prospects

    4. Union bashing -- even in traditionally pro-Union states (e.g., MI, WI, IN, OH) the trade (non-public) unions have shrunk and are being blamed for protecting the few remaining members and scaring away potential employers.

  4. Degradation of the educational system for learning hands on skills and the trades

    1. Voc tech in comprehensive high schools and community colleges have shrunk significantly in the past 30 years.  And while some for-profit and public “trade schools” have filled in some of the gap, they are targeting post high school kids.  By the age of 18 many youth have lost footing on a career path.

  5. The power of the “College for All” American story line.

    1. The US has effectively pushed the idea that “all children will become college-educated professionals.”  While this is a compelling goal in the aggregate (on average college educated citizens make more money than non-college graduates) it is not working for many:

      • Those who go to college, fall in debt and never graduate

      • Those who don’t want to go to college

      • Those who are not ready for college

      • Those who go to college but graduate without the agency or direction to take their general degree and find a specific job.

    2. But a consequence of the “college for all” mantra is that the non-college pathway has become overgrown, hard to follow, dangerous.

  6. The power of the “knowledge economy” storyline

    1. The heros in our society are creating new economy.  One needs to only become a software engineer to succeed.  Be disruptive.  Follow your dream.  Think big.

    2. To get rich:

      • Write software

      • Create a new on-line product/ idea/ service

      • Be a professional sports star

      • Go to where the money is: Wall Street

    3. 21st Century (new-economy) industry giants:

      • Elon Musk

      • Steve Jobs

      • Mark Zuckerberg

      • Bill Gates

      • Jack Ma (Alibaba)

      • Bischoff (

      • Mike Bloomberg (Bloomberg News)

      • Jeff Bezos (Amazon)

    4. The reality, of course is that these paths and brilliant heros are the exception.  Dreaming is important, but false dreams are disappointing...or worse.

  7. Americans are sedentary - they aren’t willing to pick-up and move to where jobs are

    1. Psychological pull to stay where you know (this seems to grow with each generation in the US)

      • Tied to land

      • Risk averse -- often for good reason: the safety net (healthcare, child care, economic support) is with your family and community -- it is not transferable.

    2. As people slip out of the middle class the economic barrier of moving grows larger:

      • Home ownership that is underwater

      • Shared/ mutually dependent economic ties

        • Barter economy

        • Dependent on relatives

      • Credit card/ other debt

    3. Propped up by social services -- can survive without a job

      • Social security

      • Medicare

      • Food stamps

      • Unemployment insurance

      • Disability insurance (larger portion of “welfare” than food stamps and welfare combined: 14 million Americans, $260 B per year)

    4. Skills are out-of-date, so aren’t/ don’t feel (believe) qualified for the jobs that are available

    5. Little/ no clear pathway for 8th Grade to Career

      • Most high schools are satisfied that getting their students “into college” is their purpose.

      • High School College and Career Centers issue weekly if not daily communications to junior and seniors and their parents about taking the standardized tests, completing minimum academic requirements to get into the state college system, getting college applications in, writing a “college essay” in English Class.  But, as seen on Sequoia High School's College and Career Center website no mention is made of “Career.”

      • Private college advising is a major industry supporting the parents and students who are Juniors and Seniors (and even some Freshmen and Sophomores) to “make the college list”, write the necessary essays, consider the financial burden and apply for financial aid, fill in the applications.

      • But there is little/ no equivalent effort to help these same kids consider career paths that may be a good fit.  To consider the ROI of the “college for all” path.  Explore developing employable skills as:

        • a career path or

        • as a way to pay-as-you go through college

        • as a way to develop skills/ experience that will enhance higher education

  8. Little/ no transferable Skills training in companies

    1. Most small and medium companies and many large companies do not view employee training and development as a core responsibility.  Their logic is:

      • Why should I train an employee with skills that they might take to one of my competitors?  This is a bad investment.

      • I will get a faster return on an employee who already knows the skills required for a job rather than build those skills in an existing employee.

      • Excellent training is difficult -- and it is not our core business.  So we should minimize and/or outsource.

      • When we train we train for a specific skill/ job.  And the more specific it is to our company the better the pay off:

        • Minimize the employee taking the training and leaving

        • Fast return on investment of the training -- soon after completed they will be performing the new tasks

        • The training modules are short (measured in hours or days vs. weeks or months)

      • Because employees aren’t loyal (they are always out looking for other jobs) why should I be loyal in terms of laying out and investing in a long term training/ development program?

      • We don’t have a training and development department.  To save resources we outsourced our HR functions.  And the HR company mainly focuses on hiring and compliance (how to avoid lawsuits from disgruntled employees and comply with state employer laws).  And even when the HR company does have development modules they are generic:

        • Aren’t supported by the company’s performance review and advancement policies or culture

        • Aren’t tailored to the company (product, culture, vocabulary)

      • Managers are not good at developing their employees:

        • Few companies help managers develop their skills as coaches and mentors

        • Few companies reward managers for effective employee development

        • Manager have very demanding, complex jobs focusing on the short term deliverables of their position.

          • They are working 60 hours/ week and often from home and during vacations

          • They have little or no administrative support

          • The expectations from their managers and customers are intense

          • The pace of change (process, personnel, goals, measures) is very intense...making it unrewarding to focus on long-term projects like employee development.

      • Non-managerial employees are relatively in-expensive, therefore interchangeable.

        • The mentality is that because most skilled (but not managerial) employees are not very expensive

          • Real wages have not gone up in a decade, in some cases then have gone down

        • Therefore a large investment in them of time and resources are not worth it.  Fire the underperforming employee and hire a new.

        • This does not jibe with the Skills Gap reality...that the cost of hiring a new employee is high; and the churn of employees -- especially ones who are customer facing -- is also high.

Skills Gap, Vocational Education


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