Is there really a job skills gap in America? Many seem to think so. In a McKinsey “Education to Employment” study of 8,000, the responses by education providers, employers and students revealed a stark mismatch: 72 percent of providers versus only 45 percent of employers and 44 percent of students believe recent graduates are job ready. 
The easy solution is simply better communication among stakeholders. However, for education providers, any alterations to current curriculum require input from employers on changing industry skill requirements.
As a whole, employers would rather hire candidates with strong foundational skills and later offer them specialized training as needed. This helps offset the cost of providing longer-term training should workers move on. The only exception to this is when an educational reimbursement policy is in place to help retain workers in those industries where labor shortages or high turnover exist.
A 2013 survey of employers by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that “more than three out of four employers identified five key learning outcomes [as desirable for all job candidates]: critical thinking, complex problem-solving, written and oral communication and applied knowledge in real-world settings.”
The last of these, “applied knowledge in real-world settings,” takes place more often than not online today. Aside from the traditional university or community college partnership, online learning has been widely adopted by companies to provide both specialized knowledge and soft skills training.
But a one-size-fits-all program is not suitable for all employees. And the expertise needed to customize training is often not available in-house. One solution is to bring in extended online courses that deal with “real-world” workplace issues. Each course is practical by design and helpful in developing workplace insights and relationships; the skills employers value most.
Such extended courses may be quite intensive and run for only six weeks rather than the typical 15 weeks of training. To provide extra value and worker incentive, each course can carry university credits towards an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, so seeking out courses that are recommended for credit by the American Council on Education is valuable both for employees and employers. The other four skills valued by the majority of employers also merit attention. Critical thinking is top on the list and usually associated with the ability to analyze data, make decisions, take initiative and evaluate solutions.
Such skills are developed in online coursework through close analytical readings, short reflective essays, discussion board dialogue, reflective journaling, workplace issue presentations, a summative essay and a proctored written examination.
All employers identify oral and written communications as quintessential skills for the 21st century. Social media, e-commerce, email, video and mobile technologies are bringing the world closer together, faster than ever before. Employees who are able to connect easily with customers, both orally and in writing, will play a strategic role in any company’s future.
Finally the ability to solve complex problems means an emphasis on systems thinking and case study. First there is the characteristic of a problem. Then there are strategies, methodologies, barriers and constraints to consider. In all cases, general exposure to these concepts allow for more efficiency in attacking real problems at the corporate level.
Educational providers need to incorporate employer recommendations into their curriculum and help ease the transition from study to work. Students and employers agree that university programs are not currently ensuring the right learning outcomes are being fully mastered.
Workplace learning is often learning by doing. But unless basic and foundational skills can be demonstrated during the hiring process, there will continue to be a skills mismatch to the detriment of the job applicant and society.
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 McKinsey Center for Government, “Education to employment: Designing a system that works,” McKinsey and Company. Accessed at http://www.mckinsey.com/client_service/public_sector/mckinsey_center_for_government/education_to_employment
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