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Training People for Jobs to Fill the Skills Gap

Employers have responsibility to upskill their workforce

A man on stage at the enpower conference.
​CareerBuilder CEO Matt Ferguson speaking at Empower 2017.

CHICAGO—Employers need to develop innovative education and training to close the skills gap, said CareerBuilder CEO Matt Ferguson. He was speaking at Empower 2017, a CareerBuilder conference for recruiting professionals held by the end-to-end recruiting software company.

The low unemployment rate and a labor force participation rate that has not rebounded from reductions suffered during the Great Recession, plus a growing skills gap, have created a significant talent deficit as well as a hypercompetitive hiring environment. Nearly 60 percent of employers have jobs that stay vacant for 12 weeks or longer. The average cost HR managers say they incur for having extended job vacancies is more than $800,000 annually, according to CareerBuilder research. 

"There are people without jobs and jobs without people," Ferguson said. "Millions of companies are saying they can't find people with the right skills, and 36 percent of people in the workforce—over 50 million people—feel they are underemployed."

Ferguson said that the labor participation rate should be at around 66 percent, similar to before the Great Recession, or even 67 percent, after 80 consecutive months of job growth, but instead it has fallen to where it was in 1977 (62.9 percent). 

He added that the majority of growth in jobs and wages has been for roles with a high degree of analytical and social skills, while jobs related to manual labor, like in construction and manufacturing, have not grown as much. 

How society, including employers, engages with all the people feeling underemployed or who've dropped out of the labor market is "the chief human capital challenge for our generation going forward," Ferguson said.

Stuck in the Past 

Ferguson explained that our present skills gap can be bridged by adopting alternative educational models and workforce development programs and by employers training employees and new hires in the skills needed at their organizations.

"We still operate on an educational model that is based on Prussia in the Middle Ages," he said. "A professor professes, the students take notes, they go home and do their homework, and then come back and take a test. …Once you graduate from high school or college, you don't go back for more education."

He pointed out that there has been a lot of market innovation in alternative education paths, including competency-based online degree programs that make people more employable for a much lower cost than traditional schooling. "Technology is transforming the way that education is being delivered," he said. The National Retail Federation is training people for retail jobs through online modules, for example, and the San Francisco Bay Area's Khan Academy has had tremendous success providing free, quality education that moves at the pace of each student.

"Students progress at their own pace, and do homework while in class," Ferguson said. "The teacher presides as a facilitator or mentor."

This model flips the classroom experience, said Sharlyn Lauby, SHRM-SCP, author, speaker and president of ITM Group Inc., a consulting firm in Weston, Fla., that focuses on developing training solutions.

"In traditional education, students learn the lesson in the classroom," she said. "Homework is the activity that supports the lesson. The Khan Academy encourages students to listen to the lesson outside of the classroom, then do the activities in the classroom." The Khan Academy model encourages people to practice and experiment with skills until they master them, she said.

It got her thinking: "From a corporate learning perspective, where's the Khan Academy of business? Are organizations putting together books, videos, etc., so employees can become lifelong learners? Do employees have time on their schedule just to learn? If we want employees to succeed, they have to be able to learn anything."

In Florida, the state workforce agency is asking local schools to include employability skills such as interviewing, communication, teamwork, time management, listening and networking in their curriculums.

"We want employees to be successful because when they are, the organization is successful," Lauby said. "But that means organizations have to create a learning culture so they can spend time mastering the skills they need."

Employers Must Do Their Part

Employers have not been as actively engaged as they should be with training workers on the changing skills needed in the 21st century workforce, Ferguson said. "The idea of training on the job is a concept that was used to great success in the past, in areas such as manufacturing. Employers must take more responsibility to provide training to their workers, but at the same time, employees must view education and skills development as something that evolves, not solely as something that you do early in life."

Ferguson recommended employers come up with ways to upskill their current workforce on capabilities needed at the organization and train candidates to help reduce talent deficits. He's also a believer in the apprenticeship model.

"Apprenticeships do a terrific job helping young people learn employable skills and move into jobs at an early stage of their careers," he said. "We need to figure out how to transfer that apprenticeship model [used primarily in trades and manufacturing] to our service-based economy."

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