Examining Skills Gap Perceptions

While a skills gap is widely acknowledged, perception of it varies among industry, rank, generation and gender.

by Ave Rio – Chief Learning Officer associate editor

Employers have long complained of the skills gap, and the “2017 Skills Gap Report” suggests employees recognize it too. The report, released by online learning marketplace Udemy, found that nearly 80 percent of full-time U.S. employees agree there is a skills gap and more than one-third (35 percent) feel personally affected by it. But perception of the skills gap varies among industry, rank, generation and even gender.

Shelley Osborne, head of learning and development at Udemy, said there is a disconnect between evidence of the skills gap and companies’ responses to it — or lack thereof. She said while some organizations are trying to solve for the skills gap by providing learning opportunities for employees, other organizations are missing the mark.

“They’re staying in more traditional spaces in terms of learning and development and training — and not really playing strategically at helping their employees upskill and prepare for that next step,” Osborne said. “That’s dangerous territory because this is coming for us all.”


Is Reskilling an Option?

Although 80 percent of employees believe they can be reskilled, not all employers are quite that optimistic. For example, Chris Hobbs, program manager for technical training at Advanced Technology Services, said that number is too high. In his view, about 60 percent of employees can be reskilled.

“Some of it comes down to plain skills — they just don’t have the skills,” Hobbs said. “The other part is that they don’t have the patience to develop the skills.”

He also said most people have unrealistic expectations for how quickly they can learn a skill. “Folks think that you can come in and take a week-long class on a technical subject and then you’re ready to perform troubleshooting and repairs on that type of equipment. And that, unfortunately, is not the case. You don’t go to baseball practice for a week and master the game.”

Additionally, Hobbs said closing the skills gap will require an increased number of applicants. He said his industry, industrial maintenance, has a negative connotation, which deters applicants. If the perception was more accurate and positive, Hobbs said, more people would want to join the industry.

But that doesn’t match what employees perceive as the biggest obstacles to reskilling the workforce, which most said were a lack of resources (45 percent) and increased drug dependence (20 percent).

Osborne, on the other hand, thinks 100 percent of employees should be able to be reskilled. “Anybody can learn anything they need to,” she said. “Some employers get it and some employers don’t. And that’s the difference we see [among] organizations that are truly adopting a learning culture.”


Differing Perceptions

Among employees, certain factors — generation being one — differentiated perceptions of the skills gap. According to the “2017 Skills Gap Report,” millennials were the largest group that reported feeling personally affected by the gap (43 percent), followed by 38 percent of Generation X and 23 percent of baby boomers.

According to Osborne, millennials are the confidence generation. “They feel the most affected by it, but they also believe the most in their ability to learn and to upskill,” she said. Millennials’ have experienced a rapid pace of change during most of their lifespan, Osborne said, whereas for other generations it’s been a newer phenomenon to see so much rapid change in their work lives.

Hobbs said there are a lot of benefits associated with the millennial workforce because they are used to learning online without direct face-to-face communication. “That makes it a little bit easier to deliver the training,” he said. “They are more open and they train faster.”

According to the report, gender also affects perception of the skills gap; 42 percent of men reported the skills gap personally affected them while 28 percent of women said they felt affected. This surprised Hobbs, as he said he would have guessed the opposite.

But Osborne pointed out that this may have to do with traditionally gendered industries. “What we see as more traditionally male-dominated industries are expecting a more rapid rate of change with the way technology has been shifting in the last decade or so,” Osborne said, which could explain why men reported feeling more impacted by it. On the other hand, Osborne said more female-dominated industries, such as nursing, for example, inherently experience a lot of technological growth.


Skills & Payment

When asked what skill areas are needed to advance a career, the majority of employee respondents to the survey said tech skills (43 percent). The least common answer was soft skills (22 percent).

Osborne said she understands why employees would want to develop tech skills with all the technological change taking place but employers may place a greater focus on soft skills training. “We recognize that those tech skills are going to change and that’s fine,” she said. “What we want to know is if employees possess those soft skills that will translate to any job or any project.”

She said individuals recognize on a granular level that they need to learn one specific skill, but employers are recognizing employees need those softer skills like collaboration, critical thinking and conflict resolution.

In the maintenance industry, both skills are important, according to Hobbs, but he agrees with the employees surveyed that soft skills are second to tech skills. He said technical skills are the ultimate requirement, but he does see the value in soft skills, as communication is also a top priority.

Perceptions also differ on the issue of who should be responsible for funding training efforts. Most employees said training should be funded by the government (27 percent) and corporate funding (26 percent). Only 13 percent said people should pay their own way, and 34 percent said there should be a tax benefit for learning.

Hobbs said both employees and employers need and want the training and neither wants to pay for it. “The workers themselves don’t really care where the funding comes from as long as it’s not them,” he said. He added that he thinks most businesses would settle for a compromise if a portion of the training was subsidized by the government.

“The message there is that we all need to upskill and we need to get it in a variety of different ways or sources,” Osborne said. “We can’t rely on one source of education any longer.”