Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Resolving the ‘skills gap’

Media stories about America’s “skills gap” have been frequent, and have generally focused on workers. Are workers to blame? Or do we have a failure to train? Assigning blame does not provide a solution to the problem. A Bloomberg editorial (May 17, 2012) discussed technology driven employment change, and the consequent decline in middle class wages. Recommendations for improvement included the college completion agenda, and even more importantly, the need to prepare trainable workers. Specifically, the worker of the future needs to be trained to be trainable.
College completion is critical for those choosing post-secondary education since time spent collecting college credits without completion of a degree is known to waste financial and human resources. That is why college completion is a big issue at all levels of government.
Robert G. Ketchum, Ph.D.
Robert G. Ketchum, Ph.D.
We all know how a college degree can open the door to a good job, but even if the degree helps land the job, the new employee has almost everything to learn. Being trainable only adds value when employers are willing and able to train new workers effectively. In this economy, employers often profess an unwillingness to train in hope someone else will train their employees, whether government or another employer. In other words, some employers intend to hire only experienced workers! We need trainable workers who can adapt to a changing economy, but are often faced with employers who will not bear the cost of employee training. As a result, employers often complain that despite high unemployment, and availability of educated job applicants, they cannot find anyone who knows the jobs they have available. Are we to believe these people are all un-trainable? Of course not! Many of these applicants have bachelors’ degrees, or other levels of post-secondary education. The problem is that employers are often unwilling or unable to provide needed training. A famous quotation from the Training Within Industry Service says it all: “If the trainee hasn’t learned, the trainer hasn’t trained.”
A Wall Street Journal article from October 2102 titled “Why Companies Aren’t Getting the Employees They Need” made an important point; business should stop complaining about the failure of government-funded education to provide America’s skilled workforce. Why are companies convinced that government will or should solve their training needs?
Expecting easy solutions to skill shortages is based on many years of job applications from mobile baby-boomers who already possessed extensive on-the-job training experience. Large cadres of experienced Baby Boomers solved employer training problems by responding to “help wanted” advertisements. American business is faced with the reality that the days of plentiful skilled baby boomers are quickly ending. It is the companies themselves that must now take on the task of employee training.
Foundational skills, including applied math and applied reading, are among the common core of the educational system. But while educational programs can provide those skills, they cannot front-load the 90 percent of job specific skills that make companies competitive and profitable. On-the-job learning (with or without a formal apprenticeship) is where true job skill learning takes place. Many companies have replaced classroom-based employee training with computer-based training. But this solution alone has proved inadequate in replacing on-the-job training (OJT). This gap between training and work is where structured on-the-job training (SOJT) fits.
The term SOJT was coined by Professor Ron Jacobs, OSU, 1995, who defined it as, “A planned process of developing competence on units of work by having an experienced employee train a novice employee at the work setting or a location that closely resembles the work setting.”
I suggest that employers should take responsibility to develop and manage their own knowledge and skills. Training, or its 21st century replacement, Web-based training, must be followed with SOJT if real learning is to be validated and effective.
We read reports describing a mismatch between workforce skills and the economy’s available jobs. A common recommendation is “more funding for community colleges and technical institutes.” I applaud efforts to increase funding for post-secondary education, but given current constraints in state funding, alternatives must be identified. With the price of post-secondary education rising, and the reality of the costs associated with classroom learning limiting access for many in the workforce, we must ask what other solutions exist.
The Urban Institute and Dr. Robert Lerman have been advocating expansion of the often overlooked but widely proven approach to workforce development, the apprenticeship method. Apprenticeship has been proven effective at a lower cost and with effectiveness equivalent to school-based training. The time might be right to embrace apprenticeship once again. According to Lerman writing in his article What to Do about the New Unemployment, “evidence shows that gains from apprenticeship far exceed even the gains for technical training in community colleges.” Apprenticeship and work-based learning can be enhanced with the addition of structured on-the-job training; SOJT produces important learning gains well beyond typical unstructured OJT.
America is on a paper chase. Many employers, lacking any methodology to assess applicant skills, ask for a degree as a default screening method. While more people than ever before hold degrees and certificates, a college credential is not an assurance of capability to do the job. All this is occurring while we tell young people there is no way to win without college, and we watch while students accrue student debt loads that handcuff their future. The US Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) recently posted guidance that employers requiring a high school diploma as an employee screening tool may be violating the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA.) This guidance letter explains that jobs must now be defined based on necessary worker skills rather than the results of a diploma. This determination could have long-range impact in the use of diplomas as blanket screening tools.
Eighty-five to ninety percent of job knowledge is learned on the job; however, policy leaders and businesses themselves have adopted the message that taxpayers must train workers. America developed all the skills needed to ramp up industry to win WWII in a very short time by conducting needed training within industry and on-the-job using the Training Within Industry Service (TWI.) SOJT builds on the TWI approach. Business has access to the tools (SOJT and Registered Apprenticeship) needed to meet their workforce skill needs. When these tools are used, we will begin to resolve the “skills gap.”

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