Education Opinion

Closing the Skills Gap Now

By Matthew Lynch — April 02, 2015 3 min read
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Note: Rick Dalton is the President & CEO of College For Every Student in Essex, NY. Cliona Hannon is the Director of the Trinity Access Programmes for Trinity College Dublin.

At age 23, Sean still lives with his parents in Dublin, Ireland. While many millennials face a future of limitless possibilities, Sean’s options, like those of a growing cohort of young people, are limited. Unskilled, unemployed and lacking a postsecondary degree, Sean finds himself on the outside looking in. He lives in a city where there are thousands of job openings in healthcare, technology, engineering and other sectors, but Sean qualifies for none of them.

In Ireland and the rest of the Eurozone, an escalating number of young people share Sean’s predicament. In fact, 25% of Europe’s youth are unemployed, rising to 50% in Spain and Greece!

The situation is only marginally better in the United States, where today four million millennials are un- or underemployed, while three million moderate to high-paying jobs cannot be filled. The future looks even more troubling. Over the next decade, the U.S. will be unable to fill an estimated 23 million high-paying jobs, while 20 million American youth, most from low-income backgrounds, will be out of work or underemployed.

Economists describe what’s happening as a breakdown between supply and demand. Because not fixing this problem forebodes negative economic and social consequences for the entire global community, a discernible chorus advocating closing the skills gap is growing in volume.

While there’s consensus about impending disaster, there’s also disagreement about the underlying causes.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman contends that what’s happening is not a skills gap, but rather a power imbalance where the super-rich are creating economic inequality. The Chamber of Commerce flatly contradicts Krugman, suggesting that education and the workforce can’t keep pace with our rapidly evolving economy. The Chamber’s answer is increasing degree attainment rates and developing innovative business/education partnerships.

Others in the business sector blame a failed education system. Some go so far as to label liberal arts degrees as obsolete. David Attis, expert on American competitiveness, contends that education is not only the solution, it is the key to everyone’s improved standard of living.

The skills gap conundrum is immersed in complexity, conflict and contradiction. But, understanding certain facts can help us begin to solve the problem now.

The skills gap disproportionately affects impoverished populations. In the USA, low-income youth are eight times more likely than their upper income peers to be caught in the skills gap vortex. Most often, this is not because they lack ability. It is instead because they don’t have appropriate skills and training and postsecondary degrees.

Ensuring that we help these young people become 21st century workforce-ready will obviously help them. On a larger scale, it can also help break a cycle of generational poverty.

A first step is to help students develop essential skills such as teamwork, grit, perseverance, leadership, adaptability and other competencies that will help them succeed in college and 21st century careers.

Sadly, the students who most need to know about jobs in the New Economy, those from low-income households, have the least understanding of 21st century career and job opportunities. This information gap is a problem we can begin to fix immediately.

Secondary students need to know:

  • where the jobs are today and where they will be in 10 years.
  • that “middle skills” jobs (such as nurses, civil engineering technicians, computer support specialists) are plentiful, pay well and require two years or less of postsecondary education.
  • that the highest paying jobs will be in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields. Consider that petroleum engineers earn on average $120,000 annually, compared to $29,000 for counseling psychology majors.

Two organizations, College For Every Student and Trinity College Dublin’s Access Programmes (TAP), have developed initiatives that are successfully moving thousands of low-income middle and high school students toward STEM study and careers through mentoring, leadership development and service projects.

In late April, College For Every Student and Trinity College Dublin will co-host a global summit in Essex, New York for education, corporate and philanthropic leaders who will develop a white paper that offers practical strategies aimed at closing the skills gap.

The skills gap brings both challenges and opportunities. It’s time for everyone in the education and business sectors to step up and do our part to help underserved youth become contributors to and participants in the New Economy.

The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.