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As the old saying goes, everyone complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. So it seems, sometimes, when it comes to the very real and persistent skills gap that drags down our entire economy. For those unaware of the term, the skills gap refers to the split between the kinds of skills that employers are looking for in their workers and those that job candidates actually possess.
In a survey, 95 percent of Business Roundtable member CEOs — the men and women who lead America’s largest corporations — told us that they struggled to find qualified workers to fill open positions. Estimates regarding the number of open jobs that exist today, even in the face of persistently high unemployment, range around 4 million.
Left unaddressed, this problem will only get worse. Unlike the weather, however, the skills gap is a challenge that we can do something about. And all around us, efforts are underway to improve the ways that we prepare the students of today for the jobs of tomorrow.
We at the Business Roundtable have been wrestling with this issue for several years and are engaged on several fronts to bring the learning world in closer alignment with the working world. One of the most promising is the National Network of Business and Industry Associations, which we co-lead with ACT Foundation. In our view, this kind of cross-industry, multi-sector approach can make a lasting difference in how workers learn the skills of the modern workplace.
The idea behind the National Network is straightforward. First, we have brought together a broad-based collection of industry trade associations, employers of all sizes, and experts in certifications and credentials. These organizations represent 75 percent of future job growth through 2020. Second, we have encouraged these experienced leaders to create a new model for job preparation. This blueprint smoothes the path for students to enter a chosen field, move from one job to another and keep up to date with changes that affect their industry.
The results in less than a year since the National Network was created are already impressive. Two recent documents give us an early indication that we can in fact change the way employers, educators and trainers do business. One is a first-ever summary of the common skills that all workers need to succeed in today’s jobs, no matter the field or industry. These so-called “soft skills” give schools, students and job-training providers a template to follow to make sure they are focusing on tasks and skills that employers genuinely value. And this document is a ready-made tool for human resources departments to adopt as they seek to quantify just what it is they are looking for from all job candidates.
The second document offers an update of the tried-and-true apprenticeship model. National Network members sat down and developed a step-by-step guide for developing a 21st century competency-based apprenticeship model, one that could be adopted across a range of industries and skill sets. By laying out the steps an employer or industry could follow to create its own on-the-job learning program, the National Network has provided a glimpse of a future full of workers who engage in active learning throughout their careers — exactly the kind of culture that is key to winning in the competitive global economy.
The National Network’s efforts so far are just the start of this “evolution at work.” Look for more in the coming months as we seek to build a seamless, publicly available web app that will help future workers leverage their interests and knowledge to find the best jobs for them and help current workers find out where they can transfer what they know to a new industry.
Like most problems, the skills gap won’t solve itself. But by building new partnerships, leveraging technology and improving communication, we have a chance to tackle this challenge and transform how the talent pipeline connects to our economy. Maybe we can’t change the weather, but we can bridge the gap.
Dane Linn is a Vice President for the Business Roundtable, overseeing the Education & Workforce Committee.