This week, I'm attending The Future of Work Conference being held in London sponsored by The WorldPost. One panel I am on is "Mind the Skills Gap."
Discussions about the skills gap have usually included questions such as "How serious is it?" and "What can we do about it?" and "How can we get our schools and employers to work better together?"
But now more serious questions are being raised -- questions about whether the skills gap exists at all.
Less than a year ago, New York Times columnist and economic heavyweight Paul Krugman wrote that it does not. He called it a skills myth. And he said it again just last week.
And while I'm hesitant to disagree with someone as well-versed and well placed as Krugman, there's really little debate that we have a skills gap -- or maybe, better said, an employment gap.
Call it a skills gap, a wage gap, an education gap -- it's a gap. The space between chronically open jobs and frequently unemployed in the workforce exists in many places.
A recent McKinsey report on education and employment in the EU found that, "In Greece, where the unemployment rate has been above 55 percent in 2012, employers still complain they cannot find suitable entry-level hires; the same is true for Sweden and Germany." Across the eight European countries surveyed, the majority of employers -- 61 percent -- reported concerns about being able to find sufficient numbers of employees to meet their business needs.
Likewise, employers in Latin America, Europe, Central Asia, and Africa reported feeling there was a skills gap at 20 percent, 19.7 percent and 18 percent respectively.
And it's not just those hiring who see this gap. Udemy, one of the leading platforms to offer online courses, recently polled over 1,000 Americans between 18 and 65 years old. Sixty-one percent of those in the survey said "today's workforce is plagued by a skills gap."
Because so many people in so many places are seeing it, maybe we can get back to talking about why it exists and how we can help solve it.
As someone who's spent their career in education reform and pioneering innovative instruction programs designed, at least in part, to address this challenge, here is what I see and what I think we can do about it.
First, when people -- employers, job seekers and professionals alike -- hear "skills," we think technology or highly technological or refined skills such as engineering and computer coding. And while part of the gap in the workforce is attributable to these high-training and learning skills, that's only part of it.
In 2013, the top job skills in demand on LinkedIn were dominated by technical skills but also certain soft skills and entrepreneurial approaches. These softer, in-demand skills included: communications skills (social media, digital and online marketing) and relationship skills (business development and relationship management). Other frequently cited in-demand soft skills are: problem solving, teamwork, creativity, time management and persistence.
In the U.K., the Confederation of British Industry's annual Education and Skills survey shows the workplace value in these soft skills clearly. According to their 2014 survey, 85 percent of employers reported they valued young people's attitudes towards work the most while 63 percent valued their actual aptitude to do the actual work.
Similarly, a recent survey of more than 400 employers, cited noted "...employers in the United States indicate that the four most important skills are oral communication, teamwork/collaboration, professionalism/work ethic, and critical thinking/problem solving. More than 90 percent of employers surveyed declared these skills to be "very important." In contrast, writing, mathematics, science, and history/geography were ranked 6th, 15th, 16th, and 19th, respectively, out of 20 skills."
This insight isn't meant to dismiss technology and related STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) training. But it should highlight that today's and tomorrow's workers will need both strong job ability and strong soft skills.
Few things we can do will have more impact on future employment and workforce outcomes than teaching young people how to deploy both skill sets the way entrepreneurs do. Thinking and acting like an entrepreneur connects skills such as math, engineering and technology with communications, collaboration and problem solving.
There are models to follow.
In the U.K., the government has launched a pilot program called the Fiver Challenge, where students are given £5 to set up their own mini-business with the goal of making a profit. Its goal is to teach primary school children about the role of business and help them learn the entrepreneurial skills to launch their own mini-business and make a profit.
My organization -- Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) -- works with school districts in 10 different countries to teach the entrepreneurship mindset. Our research shows that students who take entrepreneurship classes are more likely to start their own business, more likely to be employed and earn more on average than their peers.
Another truth is that while education systems are not investing enough in teaching young people to think like entrepreneurs, school systems are also lagging when it comes to teaching the harder, tech skills by themselves.
In the information technology industry, nearly all technologies become obsolete within 10 years. As a result, education expires much faster than it used to. And because digital technology permeates all industries, no field of employment is spared the pressure of accelerated innovation.
A recent TATA report about youth perceptions on work and the future found that 63 percent of European youth did not feel the education system had prepared them with the necessary skills or knowledge to find a job that involved technology.
Not teaching quality job skills -- technology or otherwise -- may be why that Udemy survey also reported that only about half of Americans said higher education helped them get their first job and "more than a third believe they use less than 10 percent of what they learned in college in the workplace."
So what can we do about it?
In the U.S., teaching entrepreneurship skills is left largely to colleges and only non-profit organizations are working to bring these skills to younger students before they make choices that are likely to predestine them to poverty.
Fortunately, European leaders seem to see the opportunity more clearly. The European Union has a plan, which states: "Education is key to shaping young people's attitudes, skills and culture and it is vital that entrepreneurship education is addressed from an early age. Entrepreneurship education is essential not only to shape the mindsets of young people but also to provide the skills and knowledge that are central to developing an entrepreneurial culture."
But even in Europe, the embrace of entrepreneurship is seen as an add-on to other education tracks. The concepts have yet to embraced and enacted as wholly and deeply as other teaching reforms, such as teaching STEM.
We need schools and programs that can connect strong STEM and other academic skills with entrepreneurial skills and mindsets which are rich with these productive soft skills such as communications, creativity and persistence. Blended and project based learning needs to be the rule not the exception.
Even if you're in the Krugman camp when it comes to the skills gap -- there's no harm in having education systems which do both things well. Maybe that's something everyone can agree on and we can get started making it happen.
The WorldPost is hosting a Future of Work conference on March 5th and 6th in London. To find more information,click here.