How to Close the “Skills Gap”

It’s a puzzling predicament: people can’t find jobs, and employers can’t find people to hire. It’s called a “skills gap,” and it basically means that workers don’t have what it takes to get hired or to get the job done.

Some say the answer is to get more people go to college. This is certainly an important piece of the puzzle, since post-secondary training can impart the kinds of skills needed to succeed in today’s jobs. But just making sure more people get certificates or degrees isn’t the answer. The key is to get the right kind of training, the kind that is needed to keep our changing economy afloat.

The good news is that there are already some national and state-wide initiatives in place to help workers get up to speed.

Developed by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), Lifelong Learning Accounts (LiLAs) are employer-matched, portable accounts that workers use to finance their education and training. The Lifelong Learning Accounts Act of 2011 is still in the first step of the federal legislative process (if it passes, workers can get tax benefits from their LiLA), but several states have already launched these 401(k)-like programs for their workers. Maine was the first state to launch a state-based LiLA program, and Illinois was the first state to pass legislation for a pilot in the health care sector that provides matching dollars for LiLA contributions. Washington state has also adopted a LiLA program, and California has passed legislation to establish a LiLA program in 2014.

Michigan is bridging the skills gap with its very own “No Worker Left Behind” initiative, which provides unemployed or low-wage workers with up to $10,000 in free tuition for community college, university, or other approved training. Workers must pursue a degree or occupational certificate in a high-demand occupation or emerging industry (e.g., advanced manufacturing, health care, biotechnology, renewable energy) or in an entrepreneurship program. In an increasingly knowledge-based economy, Michigan is taking serious steps to get its workers up to snuff.

Exciting things are taking place at the federal level, too. The Aspen Institute, an international nonprofit, is spearheading a national campaign specifically designed to close the skills gap. Through Skills for America’s Future, a nonpartisan initiative, employers are connecting with community colleges in order to train students for 21st century jobs. In one of its most recent endeavors, Skills for America’s Future joined forces with the National Association of Manufacturers to give students the training and industry credentials they need to make it in today’s advanced manufacturing workplaces.

If you don’t live in an area that’s offering special skill-building opportunities like these, all is not lost. It just means you have to be especially proactive and take your career preparation in your own hands. Going to college is an important step, but what you do there is more important than just showing up or getting a piece of paper at the end. And one of the best experiences to incorporate into your education is an internship or apprenticeship. Internships offer a great opportunity to determine and hone the kinds of skills employers really need. That way, once you have your coveted piece of paper in hand, you’ll already have real-world experience and demonstrable skills.

With opportunities like these in place, we’re hoping the “skills gap” goes the way of the dinosaur.

-Robyn Tellefsen