It’s Not a Skills Deficit!

That you have no idea what my skills are does not mean I have no skills.

Very little annoys me more than listening to a corporate suit bemoan the lack of skilled applicants for the hundreds of unfilled positions their company needs desperately to fill. Statements like this are usually followed by politicians and policy-makers talking about the need to funnel more public money into skills training programs.  Perhaps I should stop reading as many news articles as I have been, but I have become all too familiar with the sound of my own blood boiling.

Why does this get me riled up? People that are entrusted to solve our current economic/employment crisis do not seem to have a handle on the nature of the problem. As a result we are spending precious time and ever scarcer resources on solutions to the non-problems. Specifically, so far as I can tell, we have no skills deficit.

There, I said it. It is a bold, risky thing to say, particularly because any statement that bold and unequivocated tends to be wrong. Still, I said it. Why do I believe such a thing, when so many of my betters (the employed) seem to think otherwise? Well, that’s because I know a thing or two about the nature of skills, how they are developed and how generalizable they can be. When was the last time someone was not selected explicitly for a lack of skills? It happens less often than you think. Generally, when someone is not selected for a position, it is because they lack experience demonstrating said skills. And here is where decision-makers get it wrong: Experience is not the same as skills. Experience is a proxy for skills; they tend to go hand in hand, but they are not so intercorrelated that they are identical. Selection agents assume that if someone has experience performing a certain behavior, then they are skilled at said activity. This is generally a decent assumption, but it has a major flaw: The absence of employment-related experience does not indicate the absence of the skills. It simply denies selection agents an easy way of assessing said skill.

Among the reasons this confounding of concepts chaps my hide is that it is precisely this misunderstanding that keeps me and millions of other skilled individuals unemployed, even when there is a substantial demand for our skills. As a case in point, check out this post from the Official ASTD blog discussing how training initiatives have not solved the unemployment problem.

So let’s clarify:

1)      Employers have plenty of positions they are eager to fill

2)      Millions of people want jobs

3)      Unemployed individuals acquire said skills

4)      Unemployed remain unemployed

If you don’t believe the problem is that simple, then you haven’t heard that companies refuse to hire people that are currently unemployed. Hasn’t it occurred to anyone that we are missing something?

The Solution

The way I see it, we have a bottleneck in the selection process. Selection agents are leaning too heavily on the “experience as skill” heuristic and it is hurting everyone, including shareholders. If someone acquires the skill that your organization needs, but has not been paid 5 consecutive years to perform that task they currently do not get hired. The company goes without and piles the work on to their existing workforce. Do you really need someone with 10 years experience for your entry level position? Have you performed a job analysis? Are your selection systems aligned with that job analysis? Do you really know what type of person you are looking for and are you hiring exclusively on that basis? If your answer to any of these is “I don’t know,” then you are contributing to the problem. To really know (as opposed to assume) whether someone has the particular skill, we need a skills test. And a resume is not a skills test, unless you are hiring someone to be a resume coach. Guess what we seldom see in the selection process? If you guessed skills tests, come claim your sad, sad prize.

In short, we do not actually know that Americans lack the skills employers need. In most cases, we are simply too lazy, cheap or ignorant to find out for sure. We are confident our ability to read a resume and job application will grant us the knowledge we need to make a good selection decision. Shouldn’t your organization make important financial decisions on objective, quantitative data, rather than all too flawed assumptions?

Here’s a challenge for you: Show me a skills deficit, any skills deficit and I will show

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~ by George Guajardo on July 22, 2010.

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