According to the ”skills gap” narrative, employers today are unable to find enough employees with the skills to fill vacancies. A conundrum ensues when this story is told. Are contemporary job candidates and employees somehow falling behind? Did they miss the memo regarding “getting more education,” or are employers’ expectations increasingly unrealistic?
What is interesting about the skills gap narrative is the lack of consensus on exactly which skills are missing. And with no consensus on what skills are missing, there is lack of agreement on what is causing the skills gap. Skills gap conversations tend to be unique depending on the industry, sector, organization, and location.
How do we make sense of this narrative?
For much of the 20th century, organizations hired people—who were increasingly college educated—and then trained them to do a job. Toward the end of the 20th century, large shifts occurred in the job market, notably the death of “a job for life” and a corresponding reluctance of companies to invest in the workforce. Organizations feared providing rigorous and expensive training only to see employees leave and join competitors. Many scaled back on training.
The “War for Talent” was the tagline given to new thinking about talent. Instead of “hire and train,” organizations sought job-ready employees who were immediately capable of high performance. Experience became more valued and more highly sought than potential. A curious narrative began to emerge: Many people had more formal education and higher qualifications, but, in the view of employers, fewer job skills. Job candidates knew more, but could do less. Alas! A skill gap.
There is good news, however. Today, in many organizations with serious skills shortages, senior management is actively offering career support and development, including job-relevant experiences. We are witnessing the rise of the mentoring-coaching organizational culture. These organizations are committed to developing people in specific roles by providing them relevant work experience. The old adage that “experience is the best teacher” has been rediscovered. Job experience is the most powerful way we learn and establishes lasting job competence. Training programs have value, but relevant hands-on experience is a career driver.
Employers’ willingness to provide relevant experience is an encouraging sign. Employers are realizing that the remedy to their skills gap is in their own hands.
The lesson for your career? Include a persistent search for on-the-job, in-the-workplace experience that addresses your personal shortfalls. There are any number of educational and training opportunities available, but, remember that for learning, there is no substitute for experience. Find an internal mentor who can assist you in identifying and obtaining meaningful career-work experience. You’ll be addressing the right gap the right way.
Joe Abel, CPCC, ACC, PhD, is HFMA’s director of career strategies. He is certified as a professional career coach by the International Coaching Federation (ICF) and the Coaches Training Institute (CTI).