A Skills Gap From College to Career Doesn't Exist. It's the Awareness...

Opinion | 21st Century Skills

A Skills Gap From College to Career Doesn't Exist. It's the Awareness Gap We Need to Fix.

By Troy Markowitz     Apr 28, 2017

A Skills Gap From College to Career Doesn't Exist. It's the Awareness Gap We Need to Fix.

A popular narrative in the employment market today is that a "skills gap" exists between the abilities employers seek in candidates and the capabilities that new college graduates gain through postsecondary education. Beyond skills readily demonstrable from college curriculum (primarily cognitive skills and technical skills), employers complain about the lack of soft skills among college graduates: leadership, the ability to work in a team, written communication skills or problem-solving.

But what if I told you that the skills gap was little more than fiction, and a different gap exists. I call it the “awareness gap." While college graduates may leave universities with transcripts and resumes, employers aren’t able to see many of the skills they’ve developed through coursework and co-curricular activities.

Simply put, the awareness gap is the inability for college graduates to make employers aware of the skills they do have.

No one benefits from the awareness gap

Sixty percent of employers feel that the primary barrier in hiring for entry-level roles resides in the skills gap, according to a survey by PayScale. These unfilled positions carry a tremendous economic cost for businesses. In the United States alone, jobs website Indeed reports that reduced productivity stemming from open positions accounted for $160 billion of lost revenue in 2014.

There is reason to believe that many job postings requiring experience in the field, or in the same job, could be entry-level roles. Unfortunately, due to the awareness gap, they utilize career experience as a proxy for the skills they’re seeking. The result is that these positions are harder to fill, and require a higher salary.

Universities don’t benefit either. Enrollment targets are difficult to achieve when prospective students, who may be more concerned about employment than universities realize, can easily find average salaries for graduates. And students are more likely to choose a college that delivers well-paying jobs after graduation.

It is dangerous to allow the awareness gap to continue for three primary reasons:

1. Unemployment/Underemployment: Unemployment for recent college graduates has improved in recent years (the unemployment rate currently hovers around around 5 percent, compared to 9 percent back in 2008). But underemployment—meaning high skilled workers like college graduates are working low-paying or low-skilled jobs—is still high: at least 13 percent, but some report higher. One study even found that 45 percent of new graduates are in positions that don’t require a degree. The awareness gap holds recent graduates back from finding relevant work as employers fail to make the connection between applicants and the skills gained from college.

2. Crushing Student Debt: Less than half of graduates left school with student loans back in 1993. Today, it is 68 percent. What’s worse, the average 2016 college graduate who took out loans celebrated his or her new degree with a staggering $37,000 in student loan debt. At almost $1.3 trillion, student loans are the single largest debt obligation category in the United States aside from mortgages.

Combined with unemployment and underemployment, this is a recipe for disaster that has led to a number of high-profile dropouts and the rise of the so-called “anti-credential.” The awareness gap significantly increases the likelihood that recent graduates will be devoured by their student loan debt obligations, by virtue of their inability to “cash in” on the skills they weren’t aware of that were in fact a part of their education.

3. Diminished Future Potential Career Paths: Nearly 73 percent of college graduates hold a position unrelated to their major. Anecdotally, this makes sense. Twenty years ago, Google did not exist. Fifteen years ago, Facebook was not around. A decade ago, the Apple iPhone—and the millions of digital apps that would later be created to support it—had not been released. The point? Many of the jobs of the future are yet to be determined or even imagined. If we’re not able to do anything about the awareness gap, today’s students will have a limited understanding of how the skills they’re acquiring in the classroom will translate and apply to the careers of tomorrow.

The awareness gap is easy to fix

Today’s higher ed institutions can measure student learning outcomes, but how are students actually demonstrating these outcomes in the classroom? What’s missing is a way to identify and signal to employers the kinds of skills and competencies that students gain based on their program, course or even assignment. Just imagine a next-generation course catalogue showing majors and courses, alongside the skills they should expect to attain and how those skills correspond to specific industries and jobs.

Students gain soft skills from in the classroom—and more important in co-curricular and extracurricular activities—even though these aren’t be evident from a traditional resume. And much of that achievement has resulted in work product that students can show. Colleges and universities must adopt systems to allow students to demonstrate their achievements and communicate the underlying skills represented by that work to employers.

Troy Markowitz (@troymarkowitz) is VP Partnerships at Portfolium

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