Beyond the Skills Gap: Preparing College Students for Life and Work
reviewed by Gregory Wolniak & Kimberly Maes - March 27, 2017
Title: Beyond the Skills Gap: Preparing College Students for Life and Work
Author(s): Matthew Hora with Ross J. Benbow & Amanda K. Oleson
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1612509878, Pages: 272, Year: 2016
Search for book at Amazon.com
Given increasing tuition rates, rising student debt, and a constantly changing economy, the value of higher education is consistently called into question. Many of the sharpest critiques focus on its role in preparing graduates for the workforce, especially after the 2008 recession. During this period, unemployment and underemployment were rampant, college graduates struggled to find jobs, and employers reported difficulties in filling vacancies. At the center of these critiques is the historic debate regarding the value and purpose of higher education. This discussion often pits the liberal arts against vocational preparation.
Within this context, many stakeholders argue that colleges and universities are not preparing graduates for in-demand jobs, a sentiment referred to as the skills gap. They place the blame squarely on the higher education sector for not keeping pace with workforce demands. While policy makers and media sources often suggest that colleges and universities do not adequately prepare graduates to enter the workforce (e.g., Landrum, 2017; Richard, 2015), researchers have provided empirical evidence that higher education cultivates student development across a variety of important domains. This includes employment outcomes and career transition (e.g., Arum & Roksa, 2014; Mayhew, Rockenbach, Bowman, Seifert, & Wolniak, 2016). In Beyond the Skills Gap: Preparing College Students for Life and Work, Matthew Hora with Ross J. Benbow and Amanda K. Oleson contribute important new information on the connections between higher education and the workforce. This adds to ongoing discussions regarding the effectiveness and the value of higher education.
Incorporating elements of the political environment in Wisconsin, persistent debates about the skills gap, and historical tensions that exist across higher educations multiple purposes, Hora provides a thoughtful analysis of, and comprehensive guide for, aligning education-workforce needs. He draws from interview data collected from a sample of nearly 150 employers and educators. This provides a voice to chief executive officers (CEOs), supervisors, and human resources (HR) directors from the manufacturing and biotechnology industries in Wisconsin. It also includes faculty members and administrators from the University of Wisconsin system and smaller technical colleges. A particularly noteworthy contribution of Beyond the Skills Gap is the presentation of practical guidelines within nearly every chapter. These are intended to improve education-workforce relations. Through his case study, Hora argues against the very notion of a skills gap. Alternatively, he advocates for a greater focus on developing students twenty-first-century habits of mind. These are defined as the competencies that allow students to respond to stimuli and relate to the world. They also focus on a new vocationalist approach where educators continue to actively preserve the liberal arts curriculum while increasingly preparing students to be career ready. One of the books fundamental messages is that the skills gap is an incomplete narrative that is one-sided in nature. Unfortunately, it does not take into consideration the multiple interconnected factors that influence workplace readiness.
Beyond the Skills Gap consists of ten chapters plus a separate introduction and conclusion that can be viewed in three distinct parts. In the first part, chapters one through five provide political, historical, theoretical, and conceptual frameworks for examining skill development. In the second part, chapters six through ten focus on providing information that educators, employers, researchers, and administrators will find useful for cultivating twenty-first-century habits of mind. In the third part, the book concludes by offering a vision for legislatures to ensure that their students are developing the necessary habits of mind. Below we briefly highlight some of the key elements from each chapter.
In the first two chapters of the book, Hora provides a detailed foundation of the political climate in Wisconsin and the skills gap argument. In Chapter One, he connects the current Wisconsin postsecondary landscape to the history of higher education in the United States. The author highlights the shift in purpose that has occurred over time. This includes developing students moral and intellectual enlightenment, focusing on vocational training, and the increasing scrutiny this movement has brought to the liberal arts. A particularly insightful part of the volume occurs in Chapter Two and Chapter Three where Hora critiques key assumptions associated with the skills gap concept. He effectively argues against the common notion that the skills gap occurs solely because the education sector has not produced enough skilled workers. The author aptly places responsibility not only on higher education, but also on employers. This helps us understand that culture plays a vital role in the skills gap narrative through its influence on employers decision making.
Social scientists across a range of disciplines will find Chapter Four of particular interest. Hora offers an insightful analysis that is systems oriented to reframe how culture shapes students habits of mind for skill development. He argues that skills represent much more than technical abilities, but rather a complex array of abilities and habits of mind (p. 77) shaped by ones cultural capital. This type of capital is defined as the knowledge, resources, and skills that others value and that can help people attain success. Hora explains that people carry ingrained dispositions and preferences (habitus) that have been shaped by their environment (field). Collectively, these factors influence how they interact with the world. The author ties these frameworks together to argue that the skills gap narrative is oversimplified. Specifically, it does not take into account the many factors that determine student job placement, including habits of mind, cultural capital, habitus, and field.
Chapter Five reveals the shared similarities in what employers and educators value. It does this by providing information on the kinds of competencies educators and employers seek to cultivate. Through interview data, Hora shows that while technical abilities are ranked as important, soft skills such as a strong work ethic, communication skills, and teamwork are also highly valued by employers and educators alike. As such, Hora argues that the myopic focus on technical training promoted by skills gap proponents is not what the workforce needs.
Suggestions for cultivating twenty-first-century habits of mind on campus and within the workplace are provided in Chapter Six through Chapter Ten. Postsecondary educators may find Chapter Six particularly useful. Hora describes pedagogical techniques that have been shown to cultivate four of the most important habits of mind identified in his study: communication, teamwork, self-regulated learning, and critical thinking and problem solving. Additionally, Hora stresses the importance of setting learning objectives to hold educators accountable. He also suggests incorporating active teaching methods in the classroom. A few more examples of how to incorporate these methods would have further enhanced the book.
For these meaningful changes to occur, Hora highlights the importance of identifying the factors that help students acquire valued competencies. In Chapter Seven, he maps out the entire education-workforce system through the idea of a skills infrastructure. The author identifies six factors that can be used to cultivate students twenty-first-century habits of mind. Hora stresses the importance of having properly trained and supported faculty members or workplace trainers. He also advocates for curricula that reflect authentic situations, trained career advisors, trained academic advisors, education-workforce partnerships, and well-designed training programs in the workplace. While his analysis is not exhaustive, it is a useful framework to help educators and employers support students in developing valued competencies.
Chapter Eight and Chapter Nine describe how educators can effectively facilitate student development. Hora highlights the adverse effects that budget cuts have had on the University of Wisconsin system. He demonstrates that these types of cuts reduce educators abilities to cultivate twenty-first-century habits of mind. Focusing on teacher-centered reform in Chapter Eight, the author encourages the adoption of active learning techniques in lieu of traditional lecture methods to promote student learning. Hora argues that these goals cannot be accomplished without providing faculty members with adequate pay, training, and professional development regarding learning theory and classroom management. In Chapter Nine, he also acknowledges that the habitus millennial students bring with them into the classroom impacts student development. The author stresses that student learning can be supported through meaningful engagement with academic advisors and career counselors. While more detail would have been helpful in understanding how to improve students usage of academic advising services, some useful tips for career educators are provided.
Chapter Ten highlights the importance of education-industry alignment. Hora stresses that these partnerships should not be narrowly focused on programmatic solutions that aim to fill industry needs. Instead, he calls for interdependent collaborative partnerships where both educators and employers can constructively explore their differences and search for solutions that go beyond their own limited vision of what is possible (p. 189). The author highlights eight examples of different kinds of partnerships that could better align education-workforce needs and help students acquire valued competencies.
The final chapter serves as a conclusion to the book. It offers closing remarks on how to cultivate twenty-first-century habits of mind. Hora revisits the skills gap argument and reaffirms that the education system is not solely to blame and that the exclusive cause for ill-prepared graduates is not simply the liberal arts. He acknowledges that there is a gap between the competencies educators and employers want versus the competencies that students are gaining. The author also calls for educators and employers to think systemically about how to best prepare students for the workforce. He proposes that educators, academic advisors, and career advisors be adequately supported. Hora further believes that all academic programs contain a career-focused component while preserving a liberal arts education. He additionally suggests that states increase funding for public higher education. Finally, the author encourages educators and employers to engage in collaborative partnerships.
Beyond the Skills Gap is meant to guide faculty members, administrators, employers, and policy makers in facilitating workplace readiness among graduates. This study and all of its subjects are situated entirely within the context of Wisconsin, somewhat limiting the generalizability of the findings. Nevertheless, the book successfully contributes productive information to the ongoing debate on the value and purpose of higher education. As such, it is a useful resource for researchers, faculty, policy makers, and employers interested in improving teaching, workplace training, and higher education policy. It is also useful for graduate students interested in higher education administration, the sociology of education, and the sociology of work.
Arum, R., & Roksa, J. (2014). Aspiring adults adrift: Tentative transitions of college graduates. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Landrum, S. (2017, February 10). How millennials are bridging the skills gap. Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/sarahlandrum/2017/02/10/how-millennials-are-bridging-the-skills-gap/#7a7dbc8bac1c
Mayhew, M. J., Rockenbach, A. N., Bowman, N. A., Seifert, T. A., & Wolniak, G. C. (2016). How college affects students: 21st-century evidence that higher education works. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Richard, A. (2015). Minding the gap: Investing in a skilled manufacturing workforce. Jobs for the Future. Retrieved from http://www.jff.org/sites/default/files/publications/materials/Manufacturing-Summit-092915.pdf