We keep hearing about a “skills gap” between employees and the jobs they perform. But what exactly does that mean? Are we not teaching people the skills they need in K – 12 education and college, or is it employers who are missing the boat with inappropriate training opportunities? It is most definitely a combination of both, but I think something even more menacing is upon us, and it requires a look to the past for more clarity.
Throughout history most people learned through apprenticeships. At age 15 or 16, they selected a trade and then went to work for someone who already possessed those skills. This was necessary because learning the skills of the trade required a lot of practice, while being guided and corrected by someone who could provide the needed feedback. Eventually, the apprentices would gain the skills necessary to work independently, and then they could even begin to apprentice others.
This process worked well until the mid 1800s, when the Industrial Revolution came about. At that time, skilled labor became replaced by machines, requiring much less workers. But all was not lost, because a whole new area of worker need arose. Often referred to as the beginning of the “white collar job”, there were required thousands of workers to “manage” the automated processes of the machines. But this required a whole new set of abilities. It required academic abilities of “reading, writing and arithmetic” to fill the many new (and well paying) jobs of supervisors, clerks and bookkeepers. Before the Industrial Revolution, most workers were illiterate, but after the IR, people needed to have academic skills to gain well-paying employment.
The educational community soon followed suit. Universal high school for all Americans was introduced in 1910. Before, high schools had been private, and only affluent students could afford to gain the skills necessary to obtain well-paying jobs. Later, collage (largely affordable to all) also came about to increase the academic skills of all Americans. This put our country at a huge advantage over Europe which didn’t even have universal high school until 1950.
But right now something is changing again. Often called the “Information Revolution”, we are faced with computers taking many of the former “white collar” jobs of the past. But again they are being replaced with a whole new set of occupations, that of IT professional. The problem again is that the abilities needed to do these new jobs are completely different abilities than what schools — especially high schools and colleges — provide. The learning they require match more closely with how apprenticeship learning occurs. Manipulating technology is a skill that must be practiced and mentored by someone who already has those skills and can provide the needed guidance and feedback to help another.
This is presenting a huge problem for both educators and employers, and they most definitely need to work together to solve the problem. We need to introduce more apprenticeship and internship style learning in the higher grades, and it has to be highly matched to the types of skills that employers need. We are living in a time period of amazing change, but we’ve changed in the past and we can change again. We just need the will to do it!