The ‘Skills Gap’ Issue For Job Seekers

Jim Schreier

The debate over a “skills gap” is not particularly new – but, in recent weeks, it’s escalated because of some very interesting and different perspectives of the issue. For job seekers, it’s a very important issue because human resource professionals and hiring managers are going to be assessing a candidate’s qualifications within the context of the “skills gap.”

The consensus among managers and human resource professionals is that there are significant skills gaps – that organizations struggle to identify and hire individuals with the specific skills needed. On the flip side of this position, a New York Times editorial called the idea “mostly a corporate fiction” saying “don’t blame the workforce.” The editorial blamed companies for its failures to properly train workers, charging that companies want schools and government to bear the responsibility. What’s interesting about this position is that in denying a skills gap the editorial inherently states it does exist.

According to one of the recent surveys from a provider of training courses (Udemy), 61% feel there is a skills gap:

  • 54% – Do not know what they need for their current jobs.
  • 33% – Lack of skills prevent them from earning more.
  • 33% – Inadequate skills cost them a promotion or new job.

The survey asks about “missing skills.”

  • 32.8% responded “new software, programming”
  • 23.6% said “management skills”
  • A disturbing 18.6% said they “don’t know”

The survey from Udemy takes a fascinating twist. While there was strong support for the existence of the skills gap (61%), 95% stated that “they personally are qualified or overqualified for their jobs.”

The “reality gap” here is what needs to be the biggest concern for job seekers, human resource professionals, and managers – all contributors to the problems.

I have used a formal assessment of managerial competencies for almost 3000 managers in a wide range of industries, both profit and non-profit, and organizations of all sizes. The assessment very objectively assesses 12 managerial competencies against a well normed international database of experienced managers (Managerial Assessment of Proficiency, HRD Press). As part of the program, I’ve been able to collect some very interesting data on the “perceptions” of participants’ competencies.

Prior to receiving the objective feedback, which includes an overall “average” competency score, participants are asked to record their “expected” score. Almost unanimously, participants with below average overall competency scores record “expected” scores much higher. This clearly verifies the “it’s not me” perception. But the alternative is more interesting. The overwhelming majority of participants who receive above average scores, particularly those who score in the top 25%, record “expected” scores that are lower – often significantly lower – than their actual scores.

There are two very important insights from this. The first is an interesting historical perspective, from 18th century author Jonathan Swift:

“Although people are accused of not knowing their own weaknesses, fewer yet know their strengths. In us as in soils, sometimes there is a vein of gold which the owner knows not of.” 

The second, from Peter Senge, author of “The Fifth Discipline:”

“It is a process. It is a lifelong discipline. People with a high level of personal mastery are acutely aware of their ignorance, their incompetence, their growth areas.”

The “skills gap” is a challenge that needs to be undertaken. We need to take the valuable information from several of the surveys as the basis for a serious exploration of the short and long term consequences, both positive and negative, of the skills gap. Then, we could discover possible actions to address the negatives and seize opportunities for positive outcomes.

But right now, here are some actions that job seekers, human resources, and hiring managers should consider:

  1. Job seekers must adopt a “learn more each day” attitude. Of course, the computer skills you learned in school or last year on the job are no longer up-to-date. There’s just been a major upgrade with new features to the software you use most often.
  2. Human resources and hiring managers need to “peel the onion” assessing a candidate’s learning experiences and learning style. For a candidate’s significant accomplishments, probe for what the candidate learned – what they would do differently. Job seekers must show on their resumes and prepare with their interview responses to demonstrate their eagerness to accept new challenges and learn new skills. Top performers are always eager to learn more, accept more responsibility.
  3. Human resources and all managers need to do a much better job of clarifying expectations – what successful performance really looks like in the first year, in the first six months, in the first 30 days. The “reality gap” noted above must be addressed.
  4. In today’s fast-changing world, there are always emerging trends and innovations affecting our skills. Only that ‘learn more each day” attitude will meet the challenges.