TED Conversations

This conversation is closed. Start a new conversation
or join one »

Does the skill gap really exist and if it does, how can we fix it?

The skill gap has been defined as the gap between the skills the individuals seeking work and the skills required by the employers for a job. Some people feel that this is an artificial situation created by employers to keep using part time employees and pay cheaper salaries.

Some feel that the gap exists and was caused by the educational system from K through College. It was exacerbated by the feeling that education stopped when you left school or when you got a job.

Article from Motley fool

Article from Forbes

Article from CNBC

List of Articles from the Huffington Post

Publication from NIST and ASTD

progress indicator
  • thumb
    Sep 30 2013: it is crazy how many useless terms are invented by people that want to sell ideas that otherwise won't sell.

    how about an ice-cream gap? the ice-cream gap is the difference between the amount of ice-cream i want to eat and i actually eat.

    or how about the salary gap? it is between my actual and desired salary.
    • thumb
      Sep 30 2013: LOL :D good one !
    • thumb
      Sep 30 2013: The belt-to-belly gap could then be predicted from the ice cream gap.
  • thumb
    Oct 3 2013: Hello,wayne uejio
    You brought a good thread to us.I haven't read others' comments properly, but I'd like to say this also happens in my country. A lot of graduates can't find their jobs who became disappointed and anxious . On the contrary, many companies lack the employees of some specific positions with demanded skills terribly. I personally think training those candidates who have been seen prospective and owning potentials could solve this problem. Setting up more practical courses in the universities or colleges according to the job market will also be helpful.
    • Oct 3 2013: Yoka,

      Thanks for your comment. I agree that this issue actually has not gotten as much press as the older workers applying for positions and not having the skills. The same is true for new college graduates and it probably is worse - they have little or no experience to prove what they can do.

      I am very much in favor of internships or coop positions - think those candidates with that on their resumes get more attention than those that do not.
  • thumb
    Oct 2 2013: The skill gap is a function that expresses the difference between the pace of change and the capacity to adapt to it.

    If you follow Kurzweil, you will get an impression of accelerating change approaching a singularity.

    In reality, the gap is filled by default humanity.

    At the point where the gap becomes more than half the inclusion, the singularity will collapse - perhaps it will become sinusoidal, but it is more likely to become chaotic.

    The evidence of this is manifest in unemployment and collapse of the elder-class.

    These people do not just go away - they are a rising, unseen political force that will assert itself abruptly when the critical threshold has been passed.
    • Oct 2 2013: Mitch,

      Thanks for the comment.

      Are you an astrophysicist? Your analogy is something a friend of my would use. I agree chaos is a likely outcome. The unemployment for the 1st time is affecting middle management and the trained middle class. It also affecting those trying to enter the workforce because what they were trained to do is needed less. A good example is lawyers - it was found that only 40% of the graduating class from law school got jobs as lawyers and some of these were actually not paying well.

      When the critical mass does occur? what do you expect? (i know chaos but - revolution, violent or peaceful, evolution?)

      ps - yes I follow Kurzweil
      • thumb
        Oct 3 2013: Hi Wayne,

        I'm not an astrophysicist but I've been following network dynamics and chaos theory for a long time.
        The last few years have been like a massive university degree - higher education is now right here on the internet for the price of connection ... of course, there are no degrees for it, but you notice how little a degree is worth these days?

        Chaos does not necessarily mean violence - just a lot of unpredictability. There will probably be violence mixed in with that, but I always advise people to not get blood on their hands .. it does not help anything.

        We see Moore's law at work in such things as computer power, genetics, nanotech, and other technological specialisations. But we also see the same acceleration in specialisation, obsolescence, population, and climate.

        When viewed over-all, these forces must eventually act to limit each other.

        The issue of skills is created between accelerated specialisation against finite adaptability - to gain any mastery of a specialisation takes time. As the specialisation becomes deeper, it takes even more time. On top of that, specialisations are being made obsolete - obsolescence is also speeding-up - obsolescence increases waste, and we see waste speeding up.
        Part of that waste is humans.
        As we get older, we become less able to adapt to change.
        We live in an aging population - there is not enough ecological space to do another "baby-boom".
        Specialisation is also becoming more expensive.

        This all shifts wealth and resource into a shrinking number of people. The "1%".
        When I was younger, I was in the 1`% but things are going too fast to stay there, and it was an incredibly destructive thing to be part of.

        It is the hope of Kurzweil that our adaptability will be increased using technology - and AI.

        I believe that the current approach to artificial intelligence is fatally flawed.
        If the technologists get it right, they will develop an inferior species - not a superior one.

        I can go into detail if you want.
        • Oct 3 2013: I think I understand your basis, but several questions:

          * are you saying the 1% will decrease to the .5% over time?
          * am interested in your thoughts on the current approach to ai (believe Marvin Minsky once said ai needs to re-invent itself every 3-5 years due success or failure)
      • thumb
        Oct 4 2013: Hi Wayne,

        In economic terms, it is quite possible that the 1% will concentrate even further to the point of total instability. Just where that point occurs is hard to fathom - we are probably past what the chaos mathematicians call "the point of accumulation" - past that point is chaos and cannot be calculated (because even the slightest rounding error will radically alter the solution - aka the butterfly-effect).
        If you apply linear reasoning you can see that the 1% are moving into stockades - gated communities with private security forces (feudal baronies). So, in that regard, the 1% fully intend to extend the concentration .. you can extrapolate the outcome of that .. the chaos part is on the timing of outcomes, not the outcomes themselves.
        There is no longer the capacity to resort to Keynesian solutions this time - the only alternative for capitalism is a global jubilee to reset the debt - which the 1% will not do in their wildest dreams.
        The resulting feudal baronies (bound by strategic alliances) will further concentrate wealth, resources and technology.

        Minsky is good value - he has a lot to say about education - visit his website.
        What you have described (re-invent every 3-5 years) is an exact description of the Bayesian learning/adaptation process (see Daniel Wolpert's TED talk).
        In Minsky's TED talk, he hinted at the need for different methods of perception-to-agency for an AI. This looks suspiciously like the organisation of regions in the human brain ;)

        The critical missing link for AI is: to realise that for a self-organising-system, the core of it is a "self".
        We try to make AI in the definition of tools - tools do not have a self, they extend the self of the tool-user .. it cannot have true intelligence. A tool has no self.
        If you make a tool with a self, it stops doing the will of it's user - it has no user. So why make one?
        I have more to say about what constitutes a self - I'll take another 2000 charactrers to spell that out .. (cont'd)
      • thumb
        Oct 4 2013: (cont'd.)

        Self-organising systems go through some interesting phase-changes as they develop sophistication. For instance there is a phase change that occurs when an identity acquires an organic self.
        For instance - a meme is self-organising - as a simple cellular automaton, it will propagate in a medium while ever that medium persists. If the medium changes, it will mutate or collapse.
        A blank meme cannot mutate - it has no mechanism to do so.
        It lacks a "codon" - a codon allows the identity to change in response to medium conditions.
        A codon is simply a method of capturing a "code". When it responds to signal - that is the "de-code".
        The instant a codon is acquired - an identity becomes a "self".
        A self can then proceed to participate in many media - it will have a codon-system for each medium in which the self participates.
        Humans have many levels of codons - from DNA codons to biochemical codons to cognitive codons .. etc
        Each one of these will be appropriate for tracking the topology of its medium - here Minsky is valuable -- he is a topologist. Codonic tracking of topology is called "perception".
        There is a loop that occurs in the codonic perceptional schema:
        state-->sense-->perceive-->update-->evaluate-->decide-->act-->changed state(advantage/survival) This loop repeats endlessly until disadvantage stops it.
        All codonic systems operating in this loop are entrained to the self it contains - if they are entrained to another self, it will collapse.
        If the "update" part of the loop occurs outside the "self" it cannot work.
        I call this "within-loop-potentiation".
        Computer "intelligence" is not updated within the individual user's existential loop.
        If that trick can be managed, then we will see Kurzweil's extended intelligence - and that is the key to his singularity.
        No one is doing that - so the singularity will be an explosion, not a transition.
        I don't think we have time to do that - it's too late to head-off the other exponential negatives.
  • Oct 1 2013: I think it is most likely that the current skill gap is completely normal. Every economy has skill gaps from time to time, and they are quickly filled as the wages for those skills increase and people become aware of the opportunity. I recently read an article that said that there is a shortage of truck drivers in the USA. Increase the wages, and there will be plenty of people applying for those jobs.

    It is possible that the current skill gap in high level positions is related to the accelerating rate of change. When the economy is changing at a very high rate, it increases the risks involved with investing in a particular skill set. If this gap persists, business people might stop assuming that the skills they need will always be available on the market, and start investing in people again.
    • Oct 2 2013: Barry,

      Thanks for your comment

      Some of it is the normal coming out a recession and the high and lows of supply and demand. There is a need for new technology which some workers do not have. There are 2 examples that I read about - a company setup a new facility and needed welders - they had over 2000 for 100 opening and hired 10 - only 10 matched the skills of welding specialty alloys to different alloys. They decided to try an in house training and got again 2000 but hired only 30 for the training - they needed math and reading skills which they did not have. A similar case occurred with a company needing machinists but using nc machines.
  • thumb
    Sep 30 2013: I have heard it is a meme to increase the H1 visa quota. Bill Gates says by the sheer volume China produces tech workers we need more workers.
    • Sep 30 2013: Pat,

      Thanks for the comment and thanks for bringing up the H-1B visa issue. There is a lack of skilled workers in some industries, for example - there is a major need for material scientists, phd level. especially in the area of ceramics. I believe last year there were 50 such degrees in the US, Japan had over 200.

      There is another issue which is many of these workers accept a lower salary and work to get a green card, For someone from India, it is said it could take 8-10 years to get the green card. So companies have a worker that can not jump companies until they get their green card. On the other side, it costs the company money to support this effort.
  • thumb
    Sep 30 2013: I could imagine people being averse to training for a job in manufacturing, as they might expect the domestic requirement for those skills to be short-lived.
    • Sep 30 2013: Fritzie,

      Thanks for the comment and I agree that manufacturing could be a dead end. If the manufacturing position allows growth into computer control or repair/maintenance of robots, then it would make sense. Not sure if this opportunity is available.

      There is a thread plant in South Carolina who has been in business for 150 years. At the turn of the century, they had 400 workers. Today they produce more thread, shipped to Asia to make clothes to be shipped back to the US, but with 44 workers.
  • Sep 30 2013: I have a couple thoughts, one has to do with the perception of hard work. I actually found a neat article just below your Huffington post site that I think hits this nail on the head.


    The concept of hard work, professional diligence, and making your employer feel like a satisfied customer is not something that seems to be prevalent in today's workforce. In place of this, there seems to be a 'what's in it for me?' attitude, where there is a perception that they should only work during the day when a customer demands some attention, and the rest of the time is theirs. There is also a lot of focus on what others have, what other companies offer, or how much someone else makes, rather than actually working the entire time and providing value for the employer. This needs to change.

    On the other side of the coin, employers have the perception that they are going to find the perfect candidate out there somewhere, and get this person for a bargain. The idea of needing to train their own employees, grow a specialized workforce with prolonged job specific mentoring, or invest in the skills of employees is being sacrificed at the alter of short-term corporate profits and corporate thinking. Coincidentally, there is a lot of churn in the workforce, thus making long-term training of employees a real challenge. I think the more an employee thinks their skills are being continuously developed in a partnership between the companies and employee, the greater the loyalty that will exist between both partners. If a company is to flourish, they need to do what is absolutely necessary to survive in the short-term, but if they want to grow, they need to think long-term.

    There also needs to be a distinction made between academic skills, the ability to learn, and the need for continued job specific training. To the extent this training is job specific it is a shared responsibility.
    • Sep 30 2013: Robert,

      Thanks for the comment. I think you made some very good points. Workers need to be professional and keep their skills up to date. Also, I have heard of companies thinking they can hire a "rock star" at a bargain price. It happens but that company should realize that they will lose that "rock star" in a short amount of time.

      Great point that it should be a partnership of the company and worker to upgrade the worker's skill. There also should be a plan to keep the employee with the company. Some companies do not engender loyalty and they wonder why they have a churn of employees.
  • thumb
    Sep 30 2013: Interesting question ....
    Just thinking on feet :
    Say a job seeker who is an expert in Accounting but have no clue about using current IT based accounting system (very unusal these days though) looking for a accounting Job in a company which has integrated it's whole system using latest IT platform, in such case do you think that person has Skill Gap ?

    Or same person looking for a job in the same company in Sales function that needs lot of scientific understanding to sell it's product but he is a great a accountant but no clue about science .....does that person have again a skill gap ?
    • Sep 30 2013: Salim

      Thanks for the comment.

      The 1st example I believe is an example of a skill gap, especially the company needs the person to be producing immediately and if the individual is unwilling to learn before starting. (some have difficult learning new systems)

      The 2nd is a knowledge gap and not necessarily a skill gap - Unfortunately, I have seen sales individuals that could say the right words with little or no understanding. This is an interesting case because what if the individual is unable to learn the necessary information. Then I guess it would be a skill gap.
      • thumb
        Oct 2 2013: Wayne

        Well , you can say the second case to be a knowledge gap ..... Without knowledge can one be skilled ?
        Understand what kind of sales people you are talking about and yes they are plenty around who try to persuade customer without understanding the customer need .....but that these days that kind sales effort mostly fails.
        • Oct 2 2013: on this point I am not sure, the process of sales needs to understand or have knowledge of the product to some degree. The question is to what degree. I have had many sales persons say they did not know and would get back to me with the answer.
  • Sep 30 2013: This draws from my one and only work experience so far. Back when I worked as a research technician for this laboratory in academia, I was paid just under half as much as the other research technician doing the same tasks with the same technical experience simply because she has a master degree and I was just an undergrad then. Take what you may but I was told that the amount of education you have gone through partially determines your pay, and this is true of government based jobs.
    • Sep 30 2013: Tina,

      Thank you for your comment. I am not sure how it works in academia or government jobs but yes, in industry usually the ones with higher degrees start with a higher salary but if someone with no degree is doing the same or better job, they will be rewarded for it in time.
  • Sep 30 2013: I'm sure there is a skill gap in many sectors, but it seems like a gross oversimplification to assume that its a universal thing.
    These gaps need to be located and addressed on a per sector basis where deemed necessary. There is no universal solution, because its not a universal problem.

    Considering just how varied the job market is, its simply not realistic to expect either the educational system or the academy to keep up. There's just no way around it, especially in those sectors where there is no substitute for on the job experience (which would be most of them).
    • Sep 30 2013: Nadav,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I agree that the total solution will be complex and will depend upon the occupation being looked at. I also think we need to make sure the employees have basic skills which can be built upon and it is their and the company's responsibility to fit the skills to the position.
  • Sep 30 2013: Look Tom Joad I had one of the handbills and that wasn't what I found. As Sgt. Schultz said trust no one. These people lie.
    • Sep 30 2013: Ahh, another Steinbeck and Hogan Heroes Fan. I agree caveat emptor.
      • Oct 1 2013: Thank you They give a far better grasp on reality than a large number of things that I have looked at.
  • Sep 30 2013: This is a continuation of my previous comment.
    For this kind of college graduates, the businesses or industries simply can't afford to set a training program, not only for the expenses of such programs, but also they have to devote lot of the working time of the technical staff in an already shortage of such manpower for the normal operation for the companies. Furthermore, the training of job applicants has traditionally the task of the school system. It just doesn't make sense that the employers have to remedy what the education system mistakes caused problems. For example, the physicians and other allied health workers have to take "courses in continuous education" every 5 years to keep up with the rapid changes in the health/medical fields to renew their knowledge base and/or skills in order to better serve their clients. The classes of such continuous education are usually held in a school of public health with many guest lecturers or instructors from outside of the school of public health. The "students" of such continuous education have to pay their own way. Another example of the "skill-gap" which seems much less of a problem is the situation in South Korea and Japan. Their relative numbers or strength of the technology companies are gradually approaching that of the U. S. (because we are on the decline due to outsourcing), yet they are having no problem in the skill-gap complications. They probably have apprenticeship programs, but they also have better quality in the K-12 education/graduates too. In other words, if you could have a better or practical K-12 education system, then why don't we go from there, instead of seeking remedies in the delayed stage of the job applicant's life. Actually, the employer's training program just amounts to repeat the learning part of the college education he has already gone through, but has not really learned, because of his inadequate background skills or knowledge base preparation from K-12 education.
  • Sep 30 2013: Let me first start at what constitute a professional who carries out his job and responsibility well and keep up with the changing technical advances without constant prodding and extensive retraining. The obvious answer is that he has already been "trained" in the attitude and aptitude of learning how to learn. So, an ideal worker in any kind of technology field would be able to have creative thinking, and consequently he should at least quickly learn what change he should adapt to even when the change was suggested/created by someone else. I am not saying that retraining is mot necessary, but to a creative worker, such retraining shouldn't cause any problems for him to to adopt and adapt to the new technology or methodology because he is already very good in knowing how to learn as his life long endeavor.
    Now we turn to the education side. Even though our college system has been organized for inspiration for self motivated learning, but they could not find enough high school graduates satisfy their needs of having enough applicants who have the motivation and desire to get into become such self-motivated and continuous adaptive learning capability. Because, even when they got the necessary high school diploma, they were actually the products of bunch of "learners" stuffed with a standardized formula with creativity or even adaptivity severely suppressed. Many of them are treating their college study as an extension of their K-12 education, so they just tried their "best" to memorize the formulas given to them without even understand the relationship between these formulas and the reality of the technology. Furthermore, some of them are so ill-equipped in reading and writing, they could hardly communicate well even to ask questions or understand the teaching materials. So many of them just hope that they could manage the barely passing grade to get a life-long "career path" without any consideration of making real contribution to the betterment of the society.
    • Sep 30 2013: Bart,

      Thanks for both of your comments.

      I agree for the need of professionalism and that it is sadly lacking today. I have always felt that if you needed to work 100 hours a week to get a job done that you have signed up to do, you do it. It is also the worker's responsibility to acquire the necessary skills. The company can help but it is the workers' responsibility.

      On education, I agree with you. We have created students (not sure if general but probably enough) that want to be spoon feed and do not realize that learning is their responsibility and requires effort on their part. I was shocked in a letter to the editor from a college student complaining that his professor was not entertaining enough to make the topic interesting. Also, I agree with the lack of basics - put this in another post but asked some high school students what is 2+3*4, some could not do it, some said it was 20 and proved it by pulling out a cheap calculator, some gave the right answer of 14. Unfortunately, the ones who gave the right answer were in the minority.
  • thumb
    Sep 30 2013: I have not done research on this question, but two thoughts immediately strike me. One is that in a soft economy, hiring offices probably receive a torrent of applications for really good jobs from people who actually do not have the qualifications for the job for which they are applying. The cost to the applicant to apply is small, so why not if he thinks he might have any chance at all of getting the job? So it could be that only a small fraction of those who apply have the qualifications.

    I don't think anyone is claiming a shortage of qualified applicants for the vast majority of positions out there. It is only particular, higher skilled jobs where the claim is made, I think.

    Another thought is that the jobs that are hard to fill are not the ones that lend themselves to quick on-the-job training but rather the ones that require an investment over time to reach proficiency. These may also be positions in which the employer does not need a sufficient number for there to be economies of scale in providing an extensive, specialized training program.

    K12 schools certainly aim at the sort of basic skills that are surely not in short supply. In a field that changes rapidly,though, and requires higher skill, higher education may not always be keeping pace with the changing demands of companies.

    As an example, I read an article yesterday about the declining stature and applications to Wharton Business School at Penn, which used to be a very top business school, even as applications to the Bus schools at Stanford and Harvard are skyrocketing. The author argued that Wharton has held to its specialization in financial areas (which do not have growing demand), while the other schools have been steering toward great programming in technology, entrepreneurship, and the aspects of business that are considered growth areas and where the companies find themselves short.

    Many students may be preparing themselves for fields they enjoy but with little employer demand.
    • Sep 30 2013: Agreed the individuals need to realize the potential for employment of what they are studying - if the potential is low, then they should factor that into their expectations.

      Further reading indicates the shortages are in the mid and high technical areas. A good example of the mid range would be a welder or machinist. Many know how to work with steel or aluminum but not the newer alloys or welding different metals together.