We hear about the skills gap most often in the context of employers’ dissatisfaction with the proficiency of their newly hired workers. Is it fair to say that higher education is responsible for its graduates starting their careers on the wrong foot? Do companies need to take a more proactive role in training their employees to meet their unique day-to-day challenges? The answer is yes to both, however there are things we can teach students—and ways we can teach them—early on that will make it easier for them to learn, whether throughout their time in college or once they begin their career.
The fact is that the knowledge economy has opened our workforce up to a landscape where changes occur at a faster pace than ever before. It goes without saying that five or ten years into their professional life, individuals will have to retool their knowledge of their field (The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported people changed jobs 11.7 times before they turned 48—a rate expected to grow with each new generation of workers). Learning how to learn, which includes a combination of critical thinking, information literacy, and quantitative reasoning skills, is the essential foundation upon which a modern education should be built.
Who owns the skills gap? We all do.
If an individual lacks the skills to perform in the knowledge economy, they will bear the burden of loss of opportunities long after earning their degree or entering the workforce. However the ripple effect of this deficiency touches the companies that individual works for and the academic institution at which they learned. When the agility of the workforce falters, economic growth slows. When the worth of higher education is devalued, schools risk losing credibility in addition to funding streams.
In order to make good on the promise of higher education, academic institutions need to equip their graduates with the ability to thrive throughout the course of their professional lives. In the past, that meant teaching them a discipline they would use for years to come. Now, this means teaching students how to think critically, solve problems, communicate well, and evaluate and use information effectively. According to recent surveys of business leaders, these types of skills are actually in higher demand right now than any discipline-specific skill or technical knowledge.
Using Gen Ed, FYE, and Student Success programs, colleges and universities across the country have been able to work toward building a better foundation of critical thinking skills in their students. This impacts retention, graduation rates, and job placements: laudable outcomes in any era. The growing skills gap is one of the great challenges of the early part of the 21st century. Higher ed, business, students, and technology companies all own a role in closing that gap to ensure mutual success as we move forward in the modern knowledge economy.