Labor Day offers an opportunity for politicians and economists to offer their two cents on the state of labor. It’s a good bet that some of that commentary will focus on the so-called “skills gap”—the notion that millions of jobs in highly technical fields remain unfilled while millions of Americans without those skills remain unemployed.
The solution according to the pundits? Education and training that focuses on technical skills like computer engineering, or on crucial but scarce skills like welding. Match these newly trained employees with open jobs that require those skills and, voilà, the skills gap is gone—and the labor market is steadied.
If only it were so simple.
Yes, more American workers need to learn skills that are underrepresented in the labor market. And yes, those technology titans who advocate for more challenging school curricula, for greater funding for science and engineering education, and for immigration reforms to bring more skilled workers are responding to a real problem. But that’s not all there is to it. The problem with the skills gap argument is that it accounts for only one set of skills that employers consider important.
I work at Books@Work, a nonprofit organization that brings university professors to the workplace to lead literature seminars with employees. The employers with whom we work want to provide professional development opportunities for all members of their organizations, and—we like to think—are more creative in their approach to doing so than most. Yet even this group of employers has few ways of helping their employees to develop skills that aren’t about content or subject matter—skills like communication, critical thinking, creativity, empathy, and understanding of diversity.
Such skills cut across sector, hierarchy, and function—and are, according to employers, crucial to the success of their companies. According to research conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 93 percent of business and nonprofit leaders who were surveyed consider critical thinking and communication skills to be more important than a person’s undergraduate major when it comes to hiring.
That’s bad news because, while many public programs try to bridge gaps in the knowledge of future workers, there are few programs to address the gap in skills that are more difficult to measure, like creativity and critical thinking. My colleagues and I often hear from hiring managers who are hungry for programs that will encourage their employees (at all levels of the organization) to think more creatively, communicate more effectively, and become more adept at reacting to changing circumstances.
The gap in these “soft” skills is very real. Professionalism/work ethic, teamwork/collaboration, and oral communication rank among the top five skills valued by employers hiring candidates at any educational level, according to one study. Yet employers rank significant portions of those entering the workforce deficient on all these dimensions. The problem is particularly acute among those without a college degree. Employers rate those entering the workforce with a high school degree deficient on professionalism/work ethic, critical thinking/problem solving, and oral communication. Meanwhile, employers do not regard a majority of college graduates as deficient in any of these areas.
The introduction at the K-12 level of the Common Core, which is supposed to emphasize critical thinking and problem solving, may produce changes in these figures in the years to come. But for now, those without access to a university education—and even some workers with college degrees—enter the workforce lacking the interpersonal, reasoning, and thinking skills necessary for success. Unlike direct knowledge areas—like computer basics—that can be taught through employer training sessions, there is no set curriculum for critical thinking or applied reasoning.
There is no silver bullet for addressing this gap, though our approach at Books@Work, having employees read literature and reflect on it, is one example of an attempt to disseminate some of the benefits of a liberal arts education beyond the confines of the traditional university setting. We need many more such efforts. In discussing Macbeth or Frankenstein, workers explore complex (and timeless) interpersonal dynamics—an opportunity that a training on the latest operating system or review of safety regulations is unlikely to provide.
We’ve found that reading literature with colleagues can offer a new perspective on the practice of work itself, leading to greater professionalism and new ways of doing things. Themes of empathy in a powerful novella by May Sarton, As We Are Now, which is about a woman in a terrible nursing home, led workers in one hospitality company to reconsider their approach toward customers, resulting in a renewed awareness of customer needs and expectations. A conversation about the racial tension in the post-war Northwest in David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars became a platform to discuss personal integration issues in a company growing rapidly through acquisition and organizational acculturation.
Programs like Books@Work are not an adequate substitute for public policy solutions to the gap in thinking and interpersonal skills. We do not address disparities in such skills among job applicants—only among those who are hired. And they place the burden for addressing the problem squarely with employers. But programs that address the significant divide in soft skills are a first step toward realizing that solving the so-called skills gap requires more than teaching kids to code, retraining the unemployed as welders or encouraging college dropouts to complete technical degrees. We all need to continue to improve the most important skill of them all—our thinking.