The Gap in the Skills Gap Debate

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A 2017 article in MIT Technology Review validates what I have long felt regarding the current move away from emphasis on basic skills and overemphasis on STEM subjects: the so-called “skills gap,” if not a complete myth, at the very least suffers from grave misconceptions. According to Andrew Weaver of the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the skills most often associated with difficulty in hiring are not programming, not knowledge of advanced technologies, not even mathematics, but high-level reading in manufacturing and higher level writing for help desk technicians (“The Myth of the Skills Gap”).

Weaver bases his conclusions on data acquired through extensive national surveys of primarily three groups–skilled workers in manufacturing, IT help desk technicians and laboratory technologists. The results of the surveys are surprising: if there is a skills gap, it is not as much a technological problem as it is a soft skills problem, but again, not the type of problems people most often associate with the skills gap myth:

Proponents of the skill-gap theory sometimes assert that the problem, if not a lack of STEM skills, is actually the result of a poor attitude or inadequate soft skills among younger workers. But while demand for a few soft skills—like the ability to initiate new tasks without guidance from management—is occasionally predictive of hiring problems, most soft-skill demands, including requirements for cooperation and teamwork, are not.

The article goes on to say that a closer relationship among employers, workers, and schools, leading to more tailor-made educational opportunities, is key. Community colleges are at the forefront of this push, and administrators are beginning to see the need for close communication with area employers. However, some community college systems continue pursuing the decimation of developmental reading and writing courses and decreasing opportunities for students to improve their reading and writing skills, in a vain attempt to push underdeveloped students through their educational programs faster.

It is good that administrators recognize the importance of closer communication with stakeholders. However, that alone will not solve the problem of an underdeveloped workforce if the  perception of too many administrators, employers,  students,  the general public, and even some educators remains–that learning to write clearly and concisely,  reading complex texts to complete research assignments, or analyzing a literary text is a waste of time.

I am determined to combat students’ misconceptions by providing as many real-world writing experiences as possible while teaching high-level reading skills, whether I am teaching freshman composition or British literature. In future posts I will expand on some of the “summer” ideas that I am working on and fleshing out for trial use in the fall.

 

 

 

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Want Great Engineers? Invest in Reading and Writing

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My frustration levels are again rising to a boiling point. To hear from education professionals that surveys show one of the top three skills desired by local business and industry is good writing and then, in the same meeting, hear nothing about plans to develop these skills is more than discouraging to me as a composition teacher.

How can I  not get disheartened when I hear plans to spend millions of dollars on buildings and technology for engineering, automotive and mechatronics programs when the computers in my classrooms are outdated and sometimes take 30 minutes to boot up, when our tutoring center, which has doubled the number of mainly English and math students it serves within two years, does not appear to be included in anyone’s expansion plans?

What do employees want according to the report I heard this week? They want students who can read and write complex texts, but now a student can get an AA or AS degree without taking a 200-level literature course–the very courses which require students to read, study and write about the most complex texts of all. What a world…

Just for funsies, here’s an article about how important the “soft skill” of writing is to the profession of engineering:

http://www.automationworld.com/automation-team/writing-essential-skill-engineers