Which Skills Gap is Hurting You Most?

There’s plenty of talk in the business press about the skills gap and how it’s hurting business in the U.S. and globally. At the same time, there is a growing chorus that argues: the skills gap is bogus, a figment of the imagination of employers who are unwilling to train workers or pay them a living wage. There are some big names saying the “skills gap” is hogwash: The New York Times, workforce guru Peter Cappelli, the Economic Policy Institute, and US News for starters.

It’s true that many employers no longer do the training needed to develop young workers and prefer to hire only those who already have the specific experience needed. And in some cases so-called “skills shortages” could readily be resolved by offering higher wages. So, do we actually have a “skills gap”? If so, how can we have a skills gap and a serious job shortage at the same time?

My research on the changing skills needed in today’s workplace reveals we don’t have one, but multiple types of skill shortages, which are also directly reflected in unemployment, or the “jobs gap.” Each dimension of the skills gap has different causes and different solutions. Which one has the greatest impact on you – or your company?

1. Skills lost due to an aging and changing workforce

 A General Electric plant in the Midwest is losing its most experienced engineers to retirement. These aging workers have highly specialized knowledge developed from years of diagnosing customers’ problems and working with sophisticated high tech machinery. The company knows that failure to transfer these complex capabilities to younger workers will directly impact sales revenues.

The retirement of Baby Boomers who have deep knowledge of complex technical systems, advanced scientific practices, and global management processes is creating significant skills gaps in sectors such as healthcare (shortage of primary care doctors), energy (geoscientists and project managers), and aerospace and defense (systems engineers).

In addition to shortages of experienced professionals in many fields, there are newer jobs where industry can’t develop talent fast enough. Shortages of mobile app designers, corporate emissions managers, and cloud capacity planners are not just a matter of throwing more money at people.

2. The leadership skills gap


According to a study by the Economist, the number of candidates in the age bracket that normally fills leadership roles is dropping 30 percent by 2015. Research from our book High-Impact Talent Management showed that the leadership pipeline in global companies is dangerously thin. High performance organizations that expect to grow and innovate are increasingly complex and promote high stress lifestyles that are less attractive to the next generation of leaders.

More Boomer leaders are retiring just as the demand for increasingly sophisticated leadership capabilities is growing. A diversified East Coast bank is worried that if it’s stock price climbs a few more points a whole wave of valued senior executives will retire, leaving the institution woefully short of top talent. Many organizations face this challenge: how do we accelerate the development of leadership skills to support future growth objectives?

3. The job search skills gap


There are skills to do a job and skills needed to get a job. The decline in higher-paying professional jobs means the employment market has become hyper-competitive. This puts a new premium on job search skills. Research for my latest book Graduate to a Great Job shows there is, in effect, a costly shortage of these skills, particularly among new college grads and unemployed Baby Boomers. Not only are U.S. workers viewed by management as short on skills in communication, math, and technology, but they also often lack critical job search skills. As the cost of education rises and competition for good jobs grows more intense, it is increasingly important that this skills gap gets special attention.

Which skills gap is affecting your performance?

1. Be aware of what skills gap you’re talking about, and don’t assume others mean the same thing. Different language is often used to frame the problems, such as:
--“We need to retain more Gen-Ys.”
-- “We can’t find employees who want to step up to leadership roles.”
--“There is a lot of gray hair around here.”
--“The job market is terrible!”

Each of these complaints reflects a significant or potential shortage of different capabilities that needs to be addressed. No matter what kind of skills gap you or your organization are facing, it isn’t going away. Failing to address it only makes things worse.

--Increasing the costs of critical knowledge loss
--Reducing the capacity of leadership to implement strategy
--Prolonging individual job searches

The sooner you start confronting these shortages, the less damage they’ll do and the easier they’ll be to fix.