Bridging the Skills Gap? We Think There’s Hope For That

Let’s talk about those two scary words that employers keep saying, the words that seem like two more nails in the job search coffin: Skills gap.

The world is changing fast, and the skills needed to run it are changing fast, too.  I’m a journalism student, and just last year my professors were teaching their students Adobe Flash.  This year, they had to improvise an introduction to HTML and CSS.  In a couple of years even those may be gone, or they may have transformed into something nearly unrecognizable from the very first iteration.

How much truth is there to this alleged skills gap?  According to a study released in April by the World Economics Forum, 600,000 manufacturing jobs are unfilled because of a lack of skilled workers.  Another report from the U.S. Department of Labor put the total job openings across all areas at 3.8 million.  The gap will only worsen as baby boomers retire.  The workforce needs skilled workers in the STEM fields — Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics — right quick.

Luckily, there are a lot of people working to bridge the gap.  Here are a few examples:

Startups and Websites

  • Sites like Codecademy and Khan Academy are offering free online programming classes to get people into web development, one of the most in-demand professions.
  • Coursera, Udemy and Udacity offer free classes from the best college professors, giving people the opportunity to learn a skill they need without paying for it.
  • Instructables even posted a quick 6-step guide for how to program your own iPhone app.
  • Skillcrush encourages women to learn how to code.
  • The Hatchery teaches beginners to code, and companies hire them on a project-by-project basis.  The students get paid for working on the project with a supervisor.

Government and Company Programs

  • Targeting teenage girls: So far, it’s girls who have been the least interested in STEM careers. In Delaware, girls participated in an event called “DigiGirlz” in May, created by the Delaware Education Department and Department of Technology and Information, where they listened to speakers and programmed robots to compete against one another.  Girls Who Code, an initiative with big-name backers such as Twitter, Google and eBay, is a teaching and mentoring program to help girls learn the basics of website construction and entrepreneurship.
  • Partnering with local educational institutions: The Financial Times reports that many companies are partnering with local colleges or other institutions to provide their employees with the training they need, especially if it’s too costly to train employees internally.  One factory even set up a program where struggling high school students or dropouts could work six hours per day, then learn for two hours in a classroom within the factory.
  • Community Colleges: The City Colleges of Chicago offer certificates and associate degrees in manufacturing technology.  Ray Prendergast wrote in the Huffington Post that many of his students are offered jobs before they graduate by skills-desperate companies — and he has to try to convince them to stick around long enough to earn the degree that will boost their salaries.
  • Mixing it up: Amy Kaslow wrote recently that these companies need to make sure they have a good mix of young and older workers who can exchange ideas and help each other.  Employers also need to provide opportunities and encouragement for employees to learn new skills.

What’s the future?

These companies seem to be addressing the problem of coolness in STEM fields — Staring at numbers, writing in a language that humans don’t speak… it just doesn’t seem that enticing.  That is, until these websites show people that the STEM fields are all about creation. They’re about creating amazing products, beautiful art, meaningful experiences and even human relationships.

The internet went crazy when Khan Academy announced its new computer science curriculum last week, but not because it would teach people faster or in some brilliantly efficient way.  Khan’s method provides instant gratification — you can see the consequences of each thing you type.  It shows beginners the potential, beauty and usefulness of what they’re learning, as they learn it.

“It’s too early to tell how well the new tutorial will teach programming concepts, or whether it will win over critics,” Klint Finley wrote in Wired, “But it is a sign that the organization is listening to critics and moving beyond its roots.”

Yesterday, we showed you Microsoft’s infographic on STEM education.  Boys got into STEM from play, girls from their mentors.  There is incredible promise in the existing technology and programs available to teach kids the skills they need, with more opportunities being developed every day.  We have to keep pushing — there’s a reason the skills gap got so wide, and there’s no quick and easy fix.  But with the programs mentioned above, hopefully the country can move slowly but surely toward creating a better and more skilled future.

What do you think are the best solutions to the skills gap?  Let us know in the comments!