How Employers Can Empower The Future Workforce

This is the second in a series of three posts that examines the workforce skills gap from the perspectives of workers, employers, and educators.

The critical skills gap in the U.S. workforce has wide-ranging implications for both the current economy and businesses' ability to compete in the future global marketplace. Consider that:

  • According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, "approximately 90 percent of jobs in fast-growing occupations require some level of post-secondary education and training," and "80 million to 90 million adults today -- about half of the workforce -- do not have the skills required to get or advance in jobs that pay a family-sustaining wage."
  • "There are currently more than 3.2 million jobs unfilled in the United States, due in part to a growing gap between available positions and the proficiencies needed to execute the work," according to the Institute for a Competitive Workforce (ICW).
  • Apollo Research Institute's ongoing multi-city research study, Life in the 21st-Century Workforce, examined workforce readiness in major U.S. metropolitan areas and found that 65 percent to 75 percent of employers rated critical thinking skills as very important in a worker or potential worker; and 60 percent to 72 percent rated employees' ability to work in teams as very important. Yet employers report these are among the basic skills that workers lack.

Although employers recognize the immediate skill gaps, there are deeper implications for the future. A report by Institute for the Future for Apollo Research Institute identified major "disruptive shifts" in the economy that are expected to reshape workforce skills by 2020. The evolving workplace will need employees who have developed such emerging skills as trans-disciplinarity, new media literacy, computational thinking and virtual collaboration.

However, employers seem to be "asleep at the wheel" when it comes to adapting talent management strategies to build a sustainable talent pipeline. Only 37 percent are proactively identifying future skills needed for a competitive edge, and only 41 percent are taking actions to ensure that employees have the necessary skills to meet future demands. How can employers reverse this trend?

Employers' role now, for the future

A skilled workforce is critical not only for businesses' ability to compete globally, but also for the U.S. economy's continued sustainability. Automation and technological advancements will continue to make low-skilled jobs obsolete, and the unemployment rate will not decline significantly if the number of high-skilled jobs continues to outpace the supply of qualified workers.

Of course, workers themselves bear part of the responsibility for their own professional development (see "Develop a Skills Plan for the Life Cycle of Your Career," The Blog, Huffington Post, July 17, 2012), but the role of employers is crucial. They must develop an approach that addresses the short-term skills gap and also cultivates competencies needed for the future.

Here are some steps employers can take:

  • Reinvest in intellectual capital, beginning with the current workforce. Businesses already have a commitment to developing their employees and research shows that educational investments in working learners for continuous skill development can come in the form of tuition assistance, enrollment in certification programs, flexible work schedules and a culture that rewards ongoing education and training with career advancement. In fact, including support for continuous education in an employee benefit package may be a company's best recruitment strategy, and one with long-lasting returns.
  • Communicate workforce needs to higher educational institutions. Also, develop partnerships to help colleges and universities graduate capable new hires and retrain current workers. Public-private partnerships that embrace academia, business and industry, and professional associations will go a long way toward developing a skilled labor force because all partners have a vested interest in success.
  • Make requirements and expectations clear to prospective and current employees. Ask recruits to demonstrate that they have matching skills. Much of the skills gap "may be rooted in differences between workers' and employers' perceptions in key areas such as the value of higher education and the standards for demonstrating skill proficiency at work," according to Apollo Research Institute's report The Great Divide. Employers can address these misperceptions with clear, quantifiable job descriptions and a defined career path that includes support for training and development.

Finally, employers should take a hard look at training programs with an eye for future workplace needs. To address the skills gap for the next decade and beyond, education and training must anticipate how technological and global changes will impact the evolving workplace.