Viewpoints: America’s ‘skills gap’ goes far beyond computer engineering

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 focus on technical skills such as computer engineering, or on crucial but scarce skills such as welding. Match these newly trained employees with open jobs and, voila, 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 national nonprofit 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 their workers, and – we like to think – are more creative in their approach than most.

Yet even these employers have few ways of helping their employees to develop skills that aren’t about content or subject matter – skills such as 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 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 knowledge of future workers, there are few programs to address the gap in creativity and critical thinking. The gap in these “soft” skills is very real, and the problem is particularly acute among those without a college degree. The introduction at the K-12 level of Common Core standards, which are 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.

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 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.

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,” about a woman in a terrible nursing home, led workers in one hospitality company to be more aware of customer needs. A conversation about the racial tension in the post-war Northwest in David Guterson’s “Snow Falling on Cedars” became a platform to discuss diversity issues in a rapidly growing company.

Programs such as Books@Work are not an adequate substitute for public policy solutions to the skills gap. They do not help job applicants, only those who are hired. And they place the burden for addressing the problem squarely with employers.

But such programs are a first step toward realizing that solving the 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.