The Skill Gap: Will the Future Workplace Become an Abyss

By McNamara, Billie R. | Techniques, May 2009 | Go to article overview

The Skill Gap: Will the Future Workplace Become an Abyss


McNamara, Billie R., Techniques


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Workforce Readiness. Workforce Readiness. Workforce Readiness. Sadly, chanting these words three times and clicking our heels will not magically transport us to the desired goal. There is no good witch standing by, ready to wave her wand and make all our dreams come true. The interwoven relationship between workforce readiness, business and industrial development, and schools has existed since the institution of public education in the United States. During the last third of the 20th century, however, this relationship became a focus of the U.S. Departments of Labor and Education, business and industrial councils, education administrators and public policy as America realized its future employees were not prepared to enter workplaces of the future.

"It's time to stop being reactionary and start being proactive," warns Darrell Luzzo, chairman of the National Work Readiness Council (NWRC), a consortium that includes businesses, labor unions, chambers of commerce, education and training professionals, and several states' Workforce Investment Boards. "Entry-level workers, especially, have gaps in the basic skills that enable success in the workplace."

A Lack of Transferable Skills

For more than 20 years, deficiencies in transferable workplace skills have been a focus of federal workforce initiatives; yet, enacting a plethora of laws, goals and guidelines has not resolved the problems. Early federal legislation addressed only preschool, primary and secondary curricula, with no specific requirement for workplace skills development. By the 1990s, the government recognized a need to include higher education and established the year 2000 as a target for maximum workforce readiness. Nearly a decade past that deadline, the American workforce remains in a crisis state.

Workers' transferable skill levels have likewise been a concern in the private sector for more than 20 years. Employers no longer place primary importance on reading literacy and computational aptitude. Today, basic soft skills dominate workplace needs: interpersonal and intrapersonal knowledge; skills and abilities such as ethics, personal organization and work habits; time management; teamwork and interpersonal communication; anger management; reasoning and problem solving; and managing one's learning. Every federal, state and private-sector workforce readiness initiative published since the 1980s cites the requirement for soft skills in the workplace. The compelling 1990 report "America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages!" found more than 80 percent of employers were concerned about workers' soft skill deficiencies.

The preponderance of opinion among recent authors supports the notion that higher-order thinking skills described in Bloom's Cognitive Taxonomy--application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation--are the most fundamental. Likewise, consciousness of one's learning is recognized as a critical requirement by SCANS, Equipped for the Future (EFF) and numerous independent studies. In 2006, the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce declared mastery of higher-order thinking skills may define success and failure among 21st century workers.

Higher-order cognitive functions, often described as "metacognition," include metamemory and metacomprehension, or appraising the correctness of one's own recall; problem-solving, or taking appropriate steps when faced with the unknown; and critical thinking, or evaluating the quality of an idea. As focus shifted to educational accountability and individualized instruction in response to federal legislation in the 1990s and No Child Left Behind (NCLB), America recognized the need for learners to be aware of their own thinking and learning. Policymakers charged schools with identifying and remediating metacognitive deficiencies.

Preparing the Millenials for work

Does responsibility for developing workforce readiness, especially in terms of metacognitive skills, rest with primary, secondary or even postsecondary educators? …

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