Got Skills? Closing the Gap on Opportunity and Prosperity

Sep 1, 2016

​Eva Sage-Gavin, Vice-Chair, Aspen Institute's Skills for America's Future Advisory Board

Eva Sage-Gavin is vice chair of the Aspen Institute's Skills for America's Future Advisory Board and a member of the UpSkill America Coalition, working directly with senior White House leaders, community colleges and corporations to build skilled workforces. She also serves as a senior advisor at the Boston Consulting Group, focused on the consumer, technology & media and public sector practice areas. In 2013, she became the first female elected to the board of directors of Sapient, a digital and technology marketing firm and served on its compensation committee through the firm's successful acquisition by Publicis in 2015. Sage-Gavin joined the board of directors of TalentSky, a professional skills networking company in 2015. Previously, she was executive vice president, global human resources and corporate affairs, at Gap Inc.

Skill gaps are a defining factor for business competitiveness, and addressing them aggressively will be a key driver of economic prosperity during the next decade. Although the social and economic forces driving skills shortages are complex and involve many stakeholders, this is an opportunity for leading-edge HR professionals to embrace the challenge and build strong, contemporary and sustainable talent pipelines, rethinking how we define and enable skilled talent pools.

To step up to the challenge, HR professionals first need to understand the inflection points and trends that create and perpetuate skills gaps. Many of the social and technological factors contributing to skills gaps are dynamic and unpredictable, so we must stay attuned to and anticipate trends in fluid, fast-changing business environments. 

We must be nimble developing and implementing solutions that are integrated and that build a competitive 21st century workforce. This is not a cyclical trend, and we aren't just riding out a short-term phenomenon. In fact, skills challenges are only worsening as the U.S. recovers from the Great Recession and critical roles remain open for long periods, constraining business growth.

Many sectors are experiencing a chronic and nearly crippling lack of qualified applicants. A 2014 Boston Consulting Group study, The Global Workforce Crisis, $10 Trillion at Risk, says "trends across 25 major economies…are alarming: an equilibrium between supply and demand is rapidly becoming the exception, not the norm. Between 2020 and 2030 we project significant worldwide labor force imbalances—shortfalls in particular.

One significant implication is the potential aggregate value of GDP squandered, because either these nations cannot fill the jobs available or they cannot create enough jobs for the workers they have."1 A 2014 Accenture study showed that 39% of manufacturers reported a severe lack of skilled applicants and 40% reported a moderate lack. The skills challenge is even more acute for positions requiring highly skilled workers, where 60% of manufacturers reported a severe shortage of qualified applicants.2 

And the problem is not isolated. In a review of 20 employer surveys from the past two years, Skills for America's Future (an initiative of the Aspen Institute) found that approximately one-half of all employers reported having difficulty finding the skills they need.3

Furthermore, virtually every industry and employer are vulnerable to skills challenges. Among many factors, the unprecedented pace of technological change has demonstrated that any industry can be impacted by disruption and that automation is a critical contributing factor. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 25% of all tasks will be automated through robotics by 2025. 

It is difficult, if not impossible, to predict what jobs will remain and what new jobs will be needed in a decade, or even five years from now. In addition, we're seeing huge strides in human and machine collaboration, with tasks previously performed by humans being assumed by smart computing. Changes driven by technology have significant implications for the future of the workplace, and the jobs that remain will leverage human qualities and skills that can't be automated but must be educated.

A Changing Workforce

The very definition of "employee" is undergoing reinvention as many business models shift away from the traditional 9-to-5 salaried office worker to tap into increasingly virtual and a transient freelance talent pools of skills, interconnected with mobile technology and available anytime anywhere. The shortage of highly skilled workers is a global challenge, and in sectors where workers are in high demand, competition to attract and engage needed talent is fierce. 

At the same time, those high-demand sectors such as software, media and innovation are increasingly seeing work and workers migrate into an ecosystem that extends beyond traditional employment. It is estimated that in some industries over half of the workforce may be composed of freelance workers by 2025. 

The implications of this "beyond employment" ecosystem have been called out by Professor John Boudreau of USC's Marshall School of Business in his recent publications and a book Lead the Work with Ravin Jesuthasan and David Creelman.4 They describe how this emerging ecosystem presents pivotal opportunities and challenges in addressing future skill gaps.

Due to longer life expectancy we now have four generations in the workforce, with the newest entrants including Millennials who have high expectations for meaningful personal and work lives, and more frequent job changes. As a result, the concept of "workplace" is radically changing, and innovative and agile practices are needed to effectively respond. According to a recent survey of employers conducted by the HR Policy Foundation, 85% of employers stated that they have changed company policies and programs to appeal to Millennials.5

Challenging Our Traditional Approaches

With these challenges, sustainable solutions require creative adaptations from both leaders and individuals, including new ways of thinking about lifelong learning and leadership. Every day we see new approaches from adaptive leaders who seek to attract pools of skilled talent by fostering impactful, purpose-driven organizations. This new breed of leaders invite engagement and are more interested in creating "followership" and project-based collaborations that assemble and adjust to shifting market needs, than hierarchical command and control structures.

We are at an exciting and significant turning point in history and can shape a strategic view of workforce development, where it is critical to business success to invest in skills and knowledge that are in high demand and transferrable across roles, industries and geographies. Closing skill gaps can be accelerated by reinventing policies and practices more suited to the unique characteristics of a 21st century workforce and activating the global agility required to compete. We must invest at multiple levels, from entry level and frontline workers to seasoned professionals, paving the way for better job progression and better pay. 

And in addition to training, individuals often need complementary scheduling flexibility and stability—and related support—to allow them to succeed in their pursuit of additional training, higher education and career advancement. We need to cultivate strong partnerships with education partners in order to establish sustainable and collaborative pathways for talent development.

Talent is our most precious resource. Investing in individuals as appreciating assets with renewable and sustainable capabilities is how we innovate, grow our economy and stay competitive.

New Partnerships to Drive Talent

In 2011, in my previous role as chief HR officer and head of corporate affairs for Gap Inc., we launched Gap Inc. for Community Colleges in partnership with seven community colleges to support skill development and opportunity for students. Our store managers took Gap Inc.'s internal training programs to partner schools and delivered training modules important to all students, inclusive of all career paths. 

The program included effective interview techniques, job search, conflict resolution, time management and communications skill development. Gap also offered job shadowing in the workplace and provided student scholarships. The outcomes were so successful that the program has expanded nationally and has now scaled to 26 partnerships across the nation.

What started as a knowledge transfer and training program has quickly evolved into a powerful recruitment strategy and has the capability to be a long-term talent pipeline. It has also strengthened Gap's connections to the community, enhanced employee engagement and created career-growth opportunities.

These collaborative efforts are emerging nationally, and whatever skills challenges organizations may face, a good place to look for models, inspiration and an employer guide to upskilling America's front workers is UpSkill America. This is an employer-led movement that launched in 2015 in collaboration with public and private partners and is focused on expanding economic opportunity for American workers. At a White House Summit on Upskilling in April 2015, more than 100 employers from across sectors joined the national movement to invest in American workers and pledged to provide expanded career opportunities for their employees—whether they have 50,000 or 15.

Companies ranging from large employers like IBM and CVS to smaller companies like the 200-employee Optimax in Rochester, New York, have committed to launching or expanding apprenticeships in industries ranging from health care to information technology. For example, Optimax, which builds custom optics for the aerospace and defense industries, is creating a new registered apprenticeship program to train frontline workers in the sophisticated technology used to create their precision optics. 

This apprenticeship program is supported by the company's 100% community college tuition reimbursement program and will provide a pool of needed skilled technicians who can operate cutting-edge machinery. As employees attain higher skills, the opportunities within the company for both wage growth and promotion increase.

New forces of change globally have created this transformational moment, economically and societally, for a collaboration of enlightened business leaders and HR professionals to join forces and reimagine the fundamental concepts of work and talent in our 21st century workforce. We have the opportunity to reinvent the future of work and business competitiveness—or be outpaced by those who do.

Skilled labor shortages are real and will continue to constrain business success if not creatively addressed. By working together in newly evolving public and private partnerships, we can truly shape the workplace of the future and increase individual and organization economic opportunity and prosperity.


  1. Strack, R., Baier, J., Marchingo, M., & Sharda, S. (2014). The global workforce crisis: $10 trillion at risk. Retrieved from
  2. Accenture. (2014, May 14). Skills shortage threatens future earnings and growth prospects of U.S. manufacturers, according to new report from Accenture and the Manufacturing Institute [news release]. Retrieved from
  3. Skills for America's Future, unpublished data.
  4. Boudreau, J. W., Jesuthasan, R., & Creelman, D. (2015). Lead the work: Navigating a world beyond employment. John Wiley & Sons.
  5. Human Resources Professionals Association. (2014, May). HRPA survey results: Employee engagement. Retrieved from

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