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Employee Wellbeing

Why Closing the U.S. Skills Gap Starts in Kindergarten

Photo: Courtesy of Delane Rouse/Rouse Photography Group

America is not producing enough skilled workers for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers, but there is a shortage of skilled welders and truck drivers, too.

“The skills gap transcends industry,” says Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). While there is a shortage of students studying for STEM careers, there are also serious gaps for blue-collar jobs that require a high skill level. “We can’t solve the skills gap by increasing the number of college graduates.” 

It starts early

The skills gap occurs long before companies try to hire new employees. Taylor blames the problem on a nationwide K-12 strategy that isn’t creating job-ready graduates. K-12 schools aren’t set up to help kids find out what their strengths are that could lead to appropriate career training.

“This idea that everyone takes the same general curriculum for twelve years, with a few exceptions, means we’re sending kids into the workforce that aren’t marketable,” Taylor says. “They have a diploma but industry says they can’t do the job.”

Exacerbating the problem is the population shift. Baby boomers are retiring as fewer young adults are graduating from high school. That’s creating a workplace imbalance, especially as younger people don’t have the skills required for the jobs available.

The digital transformation

At the same time young people lack job-ready skills, the workplace is undergoing a digital transformation. Whereas change came to industry over periods of years, technology has shortened that timeframe to months and weeks. A job today may not be in existence a year from now, and the job replacing it will require a whole new set of skills and training. This is a problem that is affecting every generation in the workforce. 

Keeping up with the digital transformation necessitates life-long learning, but not every employee is interested in or has the time to further their education. 

Solutions to the skills gap

Employers may have gotten the message about the need for lifelong learning. Some employers are using money from the 2017 tax cuts to boost their employee training offerings, which should provide the skills needed for employees to transition along with the digital transformation.

Taylor also suggests government increase the number of work visas. Because of a decreasing U.S. population, skilled foreign workers will supplement the workforce. 

Overall, Taylor says, an improved partnership between education and employers is a necessity.

“Employers need to be clear about what they need from education, starting in kindergarten,” he says. And education needs to step up to develop the training necessary to meet address the skills shortage. 

“If we don’t do that,” he adds, “the skills gap will only get worse.”

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