The Skills Shortage Problem/Opportunity
The Internet is fraught with dire news of existing or ominous skills shortages:
- A survey of leaders from a consortium of business-research organizations finds the incoming generation sorely lacking in much needed workplace skills — both basic academic and more advanced “applied” skills. The consortium, which consisted of The Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and the Society for Human Resource Management, found that too many new entrants to the workforce are not adequately prepared in such important skills as teamwork, critical thinking, communication, professionalism and work ethic (defined as “demonstrating personal accountability, effective work habits, e.g., punctuality, working productively with others, time and workload management”), and even basic-knowledge skills such as reading and math. Writing was particularly singled out as a deficient skill, with nearly half of all survey participants reporting that two-year college graduates are deficient in this skill. [Note: See our article Writing Skills: More Important Than Ever on the Job.]
- Accenture’s High Performance Workforce Study, as reported by ZDNet, found that only 14 percent of senior-executive respondents described the overall skill level of their organizations’ workforce as industry leading, and only 20 percent of respondents said the vast majority of their employees understand their companies’ strategy and what’s needed to succeed in their industry.
- Fifty percent of Canadian managers say the shortage of skilled labor is a serious problem, according to the Workplace Partners Panel’s 2005 Viewpoints Leadership Survey.
- Most aspects of the information-technology field are growing, yet enrollment in post-secondary IT programs dropped 70 percent between 2000 and 2005, reports HR.com. The perception that most IT jobs are going overseas may be responsible for this drop, but HR.com notes that “while commoditized IT work will be offshored, there will be an increase in demand for IT roles focused on the creation of ongoing business value intelligence using IT.”
- More than half of four-year college students and at least 75 percent of community-college students lack the literacy (and especially math skills) to handle complex real-life tasks, says a 2006 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts. In addition, 98 percent of community colleges offer at least one remedial reading, writing, or math course because entering students lack these basic skills, according to Carnegie Senior Scholar Rose Asera.
- The skills of project team members these days rarely are adequate to comprehensively address all their tasks, report Dan Bradbury and David Garrett in Projects@Work.
- Bringing the workforce’s skills up to speed is an overwhelming expense that many organizations can’t afford.
The Causes of Skills Shortages
Why the skills deficiency? Studies point to these causes:
- Aging population. The retirement of baby boomers, already under way, is a major cause for the skills drain. The Accenture study refers to this issue as the “talent time bomb.”
- Knowledge economy. Consultant Madelyn Blair notes that by 2020 the blue-collar factory worker will have virtually vanished. Knowledge and information rule in a world where, as Blair observes, “there is more information in the Sunday edition of the New York Times than a 17th century [person] learned in a lifetime.”
- Global competition for skilled workers. “The performance gap between the U.S. and the European economies is increasing,” says Scott Pollak, senior manager and site leader of the Saratoga Institute in an interview with HR.com’s Karen Elmhirst. “The emerging markets of Eastern and Central Europe, India, and China are growing substantially more than Western economies, and they are competing on knowledge and expertise, not just cost.” A study by Pollak’s Saratoga Institute indicates that the low costs associated with offshoring are not the only attraction of the practice; “low costs combined with educated talent are particularly attractive,” reports the Institute’s Key Trends in Human Capital.
How You Can Benefit from the Skills Shortage
If you can offer the skills that organizations are hurting for, you will have a clear competitive edge in your current organization or the next one you seek to join. Here’s how to turn the skills shortage to your advantage:
- Learn to identify your skills. One of my students recently posted on a class discussion board that she has no skills. Nonsense. Everyone has skills. However, many people have a difficult time recognizing, analyzing, and describing their skills. The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development suggests analyzing your job functions to determine what skills you employ to perform each function. The department’s site notes that skill sets can be divided into job-specific skills, transferable skills, and self-management skills, which are also know as “soft skills,” life skills, personality characteristics, or emotional intelligence. Transferable skills are those that you develop in a job — or in any aspect of your life — that you can then apply to the positions you seek. Read more about transferable skills. The Core Competencies of the US Department of Veterans Affairs’ High Performance Development Model lists details about how workers can demonstrate high-demand skills, thus providing an excellent tool for skills identification.
- Sharpen your ability to describe your skills to employers. “Employers need to hear what you can do,” the Minnesota site declares. Compose stories that illustrate how you’ve demonstrated your most job-relevant skills and be prepared to tell those stories to employers. A skills portfolio is also an outstanding way to convey your skills to employers by showing real-world examples. Read more about career and job-search portfolios.
- Know which skills are most in demand and which growing occupations need those skills. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills recommends a “cutting-edge combination of technological abilities and people skills,” Wendy Croix reports. Croix suggests several fields that are sure bets for high growth and will continue to need skilled workers. Virtually anything relating to health care, technology, and the aging population is a safe investment of your human capital. Among “age-related services,” Croix cites, for example, are cosmetic surgery, home elder care, travel consulting, leisure services, as well as investment and tax planning. The survey by the consortium of business-research organizations points to knowledge of foreign languages, cultures, and global markets as in-demand skills for the future, along with creativity and innovation. In Canada, doctors, nurses, and skilled trades workers are said to be in short supply. See a small snapshot of in-demand 21st-century skills. [Note: See our article, Millennial Job Skills Job-Seekers Need for Success.]
- Be prepared to have your skills tested. Erin White in CareerJournal.com reports a growing trend to test candidates’ skills before hiring, and workers at all levels are subject to these skills tryouts. These tests, she writes, can take the form of case-based interviews, simulations, role-playing exercises, and mini-project assignments. Be aware that you may be asked to do more than just describe your skills when you seek a new position.
- Seek new opportunities to learn on the job. Find a mentor or a career coach. Get advice on how to sharpen your skills from the most skilled co-workers you know. Investigate whether your employer offers training programs or tuition reimbursement for outside training. If not, collaborate with other workers to lobby for such programs.
- Create a specialty niche of expertise. By observing your changing environment, you can develop a strategy to stay up to date in a field that will have staying power, says Madelyn Blair. Be sure your niche is future-oriented. What will organizations need that they didn’t need in the past? Then talk to people in your network, take courses, read books and periodicals, watch TV, comb library databases, and scour the Internet to learn as much as you can, Blair advises. Monitor your area of expertise to ensure it remains relevant to advancing your opportunities.
- Keep your skills updated and develop a passion for life-long learning. When it comes to ways to develop and update your skills, the list of possibilities is nearly endless. Consider college courses, degree programs, certification programs, workshops, seminars, conferences, distance-learning opportunities, non-credit courses, online discussion groups, continuing-education venues, and professional organizations.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms. Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.