A New Book By Wharton Professor Debunks the Skills Gap

Even at the peak of the Great Recession when the official unemployment rate in the United States neared double digits, it was an article of faith that the problem with the labor market wasn’t a shortage of jobs, but a lack of qualified employees. I have just written a review in Strategy+Business magazine of a new book by Peter Cappelli, a prominent business professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, which challenges that idea.

In his book, Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It, Cappelli, who is Wharton’s George W. Taylor Professor of Management and director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources, points to corporate employment practices as the primary cause of the gap between the know-how companies say they want and the skills that current and new employees can bring to their jobs.

Cappelli describes a “Home Depot view of the hiring process” in which employers hire new employees the same way consumers buy a replacement part for a washing machine. “Job requirements have very precise specifications,” he writes. “Job candidates must fit them perfectly or the job won’t be filled.”

Cappelli sites several problems:

  • Diminished HR departments—a result of cost-cutting during the Great Recession—and increasing reliance on automated hiring systems that screen out applications that don’t use precisely the right keywords in a job description.
  • A self-defeating cycle of companies cutting back on training and resorting to poaching employees from other companies, which leads to further cut-backs in training and more poaching. While on-the-job training used to be ubiquitous, close to 80 percent of employees received no training at all according to a 2011 survey by Accenture.
  • The disappearance of vocational training, at least partly due to a decline in unions, which were closely tied to high-school vocational training programs.
  • A “free agent” approach to hiring in Silicon Valley, which has made it difficult for even highly trained engineers and scientists to find jobs and hold on to them; high-tech jobs often last only as long as the life span of the latest hot product.

Not surprisingly, countries with strong apprenticeship programs, such as Germany and Norway, are least likely to report a skills gap.

Cappelli also debunks the idea that that deterioration in public-school education is to blame. He sites a raft of international data, including improvements in NAEP scores, showing that education in the U.S. has improved since the 1970s. Of course, international competition is stiffer than ever before, which suggests the need for not just further improvements in education, but more, and better, vocational and on-the-job training

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4 Responses to A New Book By Wharton Professor Debunks the Skills Gap

  1. Pingback: Wharton Professor: The Skills Gap Is Bunk | Diane Ravitch's blog

  2. Has anyone else noticed how the popular TV shows all have main characters who are so good at their jobs that they don’t have to fear being fired? House, The Closer, The Mentalist, The Wire, and on, smart employees with careerist (stupid) supervisors. It’s a fantasy of course, the truth is that the best and brightest are marginalized so the mediocre majority can be managers.

  3. I liked this. My oldest son got his current job after working at a temporary job that he got after completing a high school ROP program. The ROP program no longer exists.

  4. twinkie1cat says:

    Part of the standardized testing mentality infesting American schools is the idea that every student is “college prep”. As a result there is a decline or denial of students who would do best becoming well educated in a technical field along with becoming fully literate and practically numerate.

    Part of the problem is historic, of course, where African-American children were not considered bright enough for college, no matter how smart they really were, so the skilled trades became a lesser choice sometmes even a shame. (Of course in the Gulf South then came Hurricane Katrina and plenty of skilled Mexicans and the Americans with vocational skills making small fortunes.)

    But there is another more insidious issue and that is the corporatization/privatization/religiosization of our public schools via use of vouchers and charter schools. These makeshift schools generally don’t have the money or facilities to teach a good vocational program. The don’t even have lunchrooms or biology labs in many cases. But siince the conservatives push for these non-public schools that steal public money, because they are cheaper, due to hiring non-teachers to run them and undermine the unions, as well as giving the kids a generous dose of conservative religion, they are encouraged. And it is a lot easier to teach calculus from a book or computer program than it is to teach a kid to weld or style hair.hands on.

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