Undergraduates’ Skills Gap

These days there is a great deal of rhetoric about the existence of a canyon-like skills gap between what new graduates possess and what companies need, which is often characterized as an inability to write well or to perform basic math calculations. The ability to write well or to perform basic math calculations requires practice. Teaching pedagogies used in the past seemed to result in zero (or small) skill gaps. What is it about teaching pedagogies today that has generated this skill gap, which largely pre-dates online courses?

I have long been skeptical the existence of the skills gap. It appears to me to be a red herring, designed to allow companies to:

  • Reduce costs by not hiring people
  • Justify offshoring large volumes of work to low wage countries
  • Justify technology investments that replace people
  • Depress wages for current and future employees
  • Externalize employee training costs onto society – public universities or government programs (to obtain so-called “plug-and-play” employees)

But, let’s assume the skills gap rhetoric is an accurate reflection of reality. Being good at doing something, or at knowing something, requires a lot of hard work and takes a lot of practice, Study can be hard work and is itself a form of practice. Students who study less and who do not engage practice problems should be expected to know and do less.

Perhaps we are entering an era of widening skill gaps no matter what the teaching pedagogy or mode of delivery may be. The hard work and practice (thinking) required do something or know something well is diminished by the ease (and speed) with which the information needed to do something or know something well can be obtained by any user.

When I was in high school and college in the 1970s, I recall some of my peers saying that they did not need to remember how to spell certain words because they could always find out how to spell it by looking the word up in a dictionary. Others would say they did not need to know certain types of information because they knew where to find it if they needed it.

Today’s equivalent is, of course, the Internet. On-demand access to any information that may be needed to do something or know something well. The only challenges are to develop the ability to sort out good information from bad, and quickly study or practice the information needed to do or know something well.

New technology – the various forms of for-credit online courses – will not close skill gaps if the skills gap is used as a red herring. Perhaps employers will rediscover the benefits of hiring new graduates and training them (as well as veteran workers) specifically to their needs. Maybe they will also begin to hire high school graduates train them as well.

Companies that train well, who give very good feedback to workers, and also improve how they manage employees will result in workers that possess the necessary skills, lower turnover, and lower total costs.

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