What Employers Want: How to Bridge the Gap Between Employer Expectations and Employee Qualifications

Technological disruption is keeping both the workforce and the world of education on their toes. Both sectors must constantly adapt to keep up with skills demand. But why is there such a gap between the skills taught in school and the skills needed in the workplace? And what can be done to fix it?

According to Joseph Fuller, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, companies should open their minds to applicants who are obtaining skills outside of four-year degree programs.

“One thing that I found in my research is that companies are increasingly raising the bar in terms of the academic requirements they apply to applicants for jobs, as a way to try to ensure that they get a higher-skilled labor force,” he says. “But in doing that, what they’re doing is going after the most sought-after part of the educated workforce.”

After all, Joseph says, “Only one-third of Americans have a four-year degree.”

Joseph notes that when you require a four-year-degree at jobs that traditionally didn’t need one, you’re pushing the hiring market into more expensive and competitive territory.

“What we need is employers to have more solutions where they can draw on non-degree holders to fill important growing jobs,” he says.

As the workforce changes, the traditional image of education changes as well. According to Collin Gutman, head of skilled trades at Penn Foster, both employees and employers should be considering alternative learning methods like apprenticeships, when it comes to skill development.

“Certainly there are some people who do better by getting a four year degree. But there are some people who can have a better life than their parents simply by getting a two year degree, some career training, an apprenticeship etc. And just kind of being on that path from an earlier age.”

Liberty Mutual utilizes an immersive training method to upskill employees, including coding schools or online programs like Woz U.

According to Cathy Scerbo, GM and VP of Technology Services at Liberty Mutual, immersive training programs allow employees to have a good work-life balance, while also helping the company to stay technologically current and competitive.

“What we need are certainly technical skills. But we need learners. We need people who are curious. We need people who are seeking to understand problem solvers,” she says. “People who can really dig in and figure out how to maybe incorporate some new tool that wasn’t on the market three months ago into our portfolio.”

While there are plenty of companies looking for employees, there aren’t nearly enough skilled workers to fill that demand. Collin Gutman says that for those who can’t take time off work to upskill, alternative learning routes on the job can benefit both the employee and the employer in the long term.

So that’s what’s really powerful about an apprenticeship, is you’re talking about someone who’s working 2,000 hours a year, getting paid for those 2,000 hours a year. But at the same time, they’re kind of improving their skill-set, both on the job and on their own time in a kind of learning environment. So the employer’s getting in-demand talent. And the employee is getting paid today, while building their wages for the future.”

Investing in employees can keep a company competitive, and help employees feel fulfilled and happy. Cathy Scerbo notes providing support to employees to help them upskill and obtain new interests helps both the company and the employee in the long run.

“When folks go through these immersive programs and they come back, they go into a new role. They go into a role where they’re actively coding and they’re working with a team and a mentor that’s helping them move that forward,” she says.

According to Cathy, a lot of Liberty Mutual employees are grateful to have the opportunity to stay at the company and learn a new skill they’re excited about.

“That’s forward thinking,” she says.

So what skills should employees focus on gaining? Joseph Fuller cites research at Harvard, which shows more jobs than ever involve a lot of social interaction. Those social skills are crucial in today’s workforce.

“It’s the ability to deal with someone you’ve met for the first time effectively, it’s the ability to articulate an argument or negotiate with someone, not negotiate like a contract, but if a customer comes in with a complaint, how do you deal with it? How do you interact with them?” he asks.

“It’s the ability to participate in teams with people you’re not familiar with—could be colleagues, could be a supplier, could be a customer—and be effective.”

It’s not just one person’s job to focus on upskilling to fill the skills gap. Collin Gutman says industries and educators need to work together, or the gap will continue to widen.

In order to make these positions work, you really need to combine industry and education, because education can’t produce a welder on its own. But industry really struggles to produce a welder, because they only know the hands-on aspect. For them to develop curriculum is very far outside their wheelhouse. It’s so important to have the employer, the supervisor, and the educator all kind of working hand-in-hand.”

Although many students do internships or workforce preparedness classes while getting a degree, many companies still don’t think students are ready right away. At Liberty Mutual, entry-level hires train for a year before starting their positions, while other new hires do not. Cathy Scerbo says this gap created between universities and companies needs to be bridged.

“I think we need to start with educating each other at the universities perspective and the corporations perspective just for us to know each other. Why do the universities feel that they’re ready, and why do we feel that they’re not ready? What are we doing in that first year that maybe we could partner with as they’re still in school, whether in their junior year or senior year. And frankly, a summer internship is not enough.”

So how can universities and companies work to lessen the skills gap? Joseph Fuller notes that it’s important for both the workforce and the education system to embrace technology and use it to their benefit, as opposed to fighting against the changes.

“What we have to do is think about a workforce that can benefit from robotics, that’s made more productive through automation robotics, which will allow people more capacity to make money. But it is going to require them to master some new skills,” he says.

“And we have to be clear-eyed that our K through 12 system—and most of our high schools and community colleges—really aren’t well set up to do that now. We need more dynamism and more market responsiveness in the education system. And we need many more opportunities for people to have work-based learning experiences where they’re interacting with that technology in their educational process.”

One thing is clear, both employers and higher education institutions have to adjust their tactics to keep up with a changing workforce. Although adaptation might be slow going, it’s crucial so employees and companies can keep up with demand, and help narrow the skills gap.

This podcast episode is sponsored by Woz U. Steve Wozniak changed the world when he invented the personal computer, and now he’s doing it again with education. Founded by Steve Wozniak, Woz U is educating America’s tech force in software development, cyber security, and data science online and on campus.

To learn more about how Woz U and your business can partner, visit woz-u.com/employers.

Mariel Cariker

Mariel Cariker

Mariel is a Boston-based freelance writer and audio producer who has covered news, technology and innovation for public media groups including WBUR and WGBH. Outside of work, she performs and writes spoken word poetry and voraciously reads true crime novels.