The official online extension of HR Professional, the magazine of human resources thought leadership

Bridging the Skills Gap

06/21/2016 by Wendy Cukier

Students and graduates have a different perspective on their performance than prospective employers

“Jobs without people and people without jobs” is a challenge in many industrialized countries. Unemployment and under-employment rates are high – particularly among youth, immigrants, aboriginal people and people with disabilities – while many businesses report they cannot find the skills they need. For example, a recent survey by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce indicated more than one-third of small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Ontario have positions they cannot fill. While part of this is a result of a skills mismatch – the jobs available do not match the profile of those seeking employment – it is more complex. The 2012 Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services noted labour market projections are no easy task.

The furor about the “skills gap” isn’t new. In 1997, a Globe and Mail article wrote, “Canadian advanced technology businesses (88 per cent) believe they face a skills shortage. Many jobs remain open because of this shortage.” Employers projected a high demand for engineering and computer science graduates and demanded that governments “double the pipeline” to produce them. Post-secondary institutions listened but market conditions changed and the jobs disappeared. The very same employers began calling for more focus on soft skills. Part of the challenge is that, historically, universities have not been very agile in responding to demands – approval processes for new degree programs often mean that it could be at least six years before the first graduates appear.

There is also evidence to suggest that more considered job analysis is warranted – that employers may demand skills or qualifications that are not essential for the task. For example, one study of the information communications technology sector noted a significant difference between the skills demanded in job advertisements versus the skills required to perform the jobs. Often, engineering or computer science degrees were demanded even though graduates in other programs – for example, from information science, information technology management, informatics, digital media or other hybrid degrees – could perform the job. The study found that engineering and computer science tended to want to hire in its own image, regardless of the skills actually needed. The result was the creation of unintentional barriers, largely for women.

Innovative research and new data mining and analytics techniques are helping us understand these issues in a more nuanced way. Two recent studies show how the expectations of employers and graduates may be very different. Funded by the Ontario Human Capital Research and Innovation Fund (OHCRIF), the first study compared employer and job seeker perceptions of their skills and a second study, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, examined the issue of “soft skills” in more detail.

The OHCRIF study examined the perspectives of Ontario employers, Ryerson University students and recent graduates to examine their perspectives of the skills needed and skills possessed.

Current students and recent graduates rated their “essential” skills proficiency highly. For example, 85 per cent of students rated their skills proficiency in reading, document use, thinking, writing, working with others and continuous learning above average.

Over 70 per cent of current students and recent graduates believed that they were highly proficient in “thinking skills” (problem solving, decision making, critical thinking, job task planning, significant use of memory and finding information). Both current students and recent graduates were less likely to rate their proficiency above average in numeracy and digital technology, but this varied by discipline.

However, employers painted a very different picture. For example:

  • While recent graduates perceived themselves to be highly proficient in oral communication (90.7 per cent) and writing (93.1 per cent) skills, employers perceive recent graduate hires to be less proficient (47.6 per cent and 39.4 per cent)
  • Employers perceived few recently hired graduates to be highly proficient in digital tools. For instance, employers found only one-quarter of recently hired graduates to have a high proficiency in Windows or Linux and less than 10 per cent in website design and development.
  • There were also gaps in the assessment of ability to learn on the job (93 per cent versus 53.3 per cent); proficiency with Microsoft Office (74 per cent versus 50.3 per cent); proficiency with Microsoft Excel, specifically (61.7 per cent versus 50.3 per cent); and ethics ability (81.3 per cent versus 48.2 per cent).
  • After salary expectations, employers reported that the biggest challenge they face when recruiting recent graduates is finding candidates with the necessary technical skills.

Digging in further, it seems that part of the problem is a lack of clarity surrounding the way in which skills are de ned. Much attention has been focused on so-called “soft skills” and the critical importance these have for workplace success. But a review of more than 6,000 research studies from around the world showed that there was a lack of clear definition of “soft skills.”

Moreover, it revealed that much of the research on the nature of soft skills has focused on the needs of graduates from science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) or other professional disciplines, such as business. Perhaps this is because it assumed that social sciences and humanities (SSH) degrees develop soft skills through the course of their studies. However, there is evidence that while SSH graduates may have important critical thinking and communications skills, they may also lack the specific soft skills required by employers.

The research from these studies has played a significant role in shaping innovative internship and training programs being supported by the Ministry of Economic Development and Innovation. The boot camp, coupled with paid internships, is designed to provide SSH graduates with a leg up in finding employment, and to explore ways in which their academic training can be augmented with specialized training to improve their success in the workplace. They may have strong writing and communication skills, but can they write a 250-word pitch, can they do a five-minute presentation, do they know how to present themselves in an interview or to network with prospective clients?

The evidence is clear – university graduates, regardless of discipline, over the long term earn more than others. However, by using rigorous research and consulting with employers, we can create innovative programs that enhance our graduates’ job prospects and provide the critical talent to drive economic and social development. University graduates are, of course, only one segment of the job seeker market. The new Ontario Centre for Workforce Innovation (OCWI) will help shed light on best practices in training and workforce development. And more importantly, it will help us gain better insight into the skills job seekers have and the skills employers say they want in order to at least bridge the information gap.

Wendy Cukier is vice president of research and innovation at Ryerson and founder of the Diversity Institute.