Steps employers can take to bridge the work-skills gap

The work-skills gap is the difference between the skills employers need from a workforce and the skills the available workforce has.

Jason Abbott, director of workforce development at Cuyahoga Community College’s Workforce Economic Development Division at the Advanced Technology Training Center, says that gap is stunting economic growth in industry sectors and the overall economy because companies aren’t operating at full potential.

Smart Business spoke with Abbott about how to bridge the work-skills gap.

How is it that the skills gap came to be?
There are areas in which employers are operating less than optimally because they can’t find the talent to adequately fill positions needed to perform better, so they face output constraints.

Automation is also contributing to the skills gap. Lower-skill occupations have been replaced with higher-skill occupations that come with a need for increased training. This has slowed the progress of workers through the training pipelines.

The national conversation doesn’t necessarily reflect the work that’s being done on a regional level to bridge this gap. A macro-level debate is controversial since specific employer gaps and the skills of the workforce are a microeconomic issue.

Those that are engaged in workforce development are relying on regional data of workforce participation rates to describe the in-demand occupations and the skills needed to fill them. From that, training can accelerated to fill the pipeline.

What can employers do to close the work skills gap?
The emphasis recently has been to convince employers to leverage their incumbent employees and upskill their abilities. There are limits on the effectiveness of filling gaps by external hiring. More employers recognize that they have a ready workforce and are choosing to upskill existing employees while concurrently backfilling with entry-level employees.

This approach also goes a long way to address one of the biggest skill gaps employers have, which is a lack of soft skills. There’s less risk in building the technical skills of someone who already understands the company culture and how to work with others within the organization. They’ve already proven they’re a fit. Give them the training they need to take on greater responsibility or different, more technical, tasks.

Employers should reassess and redefine the skill requirements of their positions. There are instances in which employers have unrealistic skill or experience requirements for certain positions and that is hurting their ability to fill positions. Employers should also consider reevaluating pre-employment requirements that may bar otherwise qualified workers from taking a job.

For instance, some employers can eliminate a clean criminal record as a requirement for employment, particularly with regard to those who have low-level offenses.

Employers may find success through the implementation of apprenticeship programs or learn-and-earn opportunities. Many job candidates need to earn money while learning. Employers can help underwrite that through such programs.

There’s also the need for employers to better market themselves. Competition among employers for highly skilled workers is increasing. It’s essential that companies explain why these workers should join their organization when they have many options for employment.

Besides employers, what other stakeholders can help address the skills gap?
Addressing the skills gap takes a multifaceted approach in collaboration with parties that range from the parents of school-age children to community organizations. The best approach is regional, because stakeholders in any given market understand the unique challenges and strengths at play.

Partnerships with stakeholders at every level of the market are the key to finding solutions for the skills gap. It also takes buy-in from businesses, identifying the right skills necessary for each job and the living wage associated with those skills, and properly marketing the available opportunities. Fortunately, there already are actions being taken to address these shortages, many of which are making headway.

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