4 Ways Companies Can Fix The Employment Skills Gap

The struggles of the young and jobless continue. How can job-seeking recent grads connect with companies that require experienced workers?

It’s not easy to be young and unemployed today. The March 2014 unemployment rate of workers under age 25 was 14.5%—more than twice the overall rate of 6.7%. Among recent college graduates, a recent paper from the Economic Policy Institute says the unemployment rate is 8.5%, and those who have high school diplomas are mired in a 22.9% jobless rate. Underemployment is even worse at 16.8% for young college alumni and 41.5% for high school grads.

One of the biggest barriers to employment for young people is lack of experience. A March 2013 survey by recruiting and staffing firm Adecco found that 66% of hiring managers said they do not believe new college graduates are prepared for the workforce when they finish college. Fifty-eight percent didn’t plan—including entry-level college grads—in their new hires.

The reason? Companies don’t want to take on the time and expense of training young workers, and young workers either lack or don’t know how to present the skills necessary to get them hired. It’s a “huge” problem, says human resources expert Jim Ice, founder of Jim Ice & Associates, an HR consultancy in Murrysville, Pennsylvania.

So, how do we bridge this employment skills gap? Here are some ways business leaders can find solutions that bring competent, skilled talent into hiring managers’ offices.

Recruit Earlier

One of Ice’s previous employers developed seminars for high school juniors to begin to make them familiar with the opportunities at the company and the education and skills path it would take to get there. That’s not the right move for every company, he says. However, working with target colleges and universities—either regionally or according to the specialization you need—can help you get in front of young talent sooner and help them understand the skills and experience they’re going to need to require; in addition to education.

Rethink Higher Education

Bellevue University, in Bellevue, Nebraska, is tackling this question by integrating more skills-based and experiential elements into its curricula. Rod Hewlett, dean of Bellevue’s College of Business works directly with its advisory group and businesses to research and assess the skills that new graduates need to be attractive to employers. In some cases, certifications or higher education is necessary. However, he finds that the key skills for most jobs are softer and include:

  • Problem identification and solving skills
  • Decision-making ability
  • Good judgment
  • Analytical skills
  • Communication skills
  • Reason

The university has begun building its programs to develop and evaluate these skills. Students participate in hands-on projects and in settings designed to simulate real-world work situations, sometimes in partnership with businesses. Instructors and fellow students review performance and give feedback.

“The focus is on mastery of those skills,” says Hewlett.

Find the Right Partnerships

Ice recommends that companies actively reach out to the colleges, universities, and trade schools that develop students for their fields and work on developing partnerships. Tell them the specific skills you need to hire students and suggest that you work with them to find ways to properly prepare young graduates to work in your field, and at your company.

He worked on such a program for a former employer that partnered with Pennsylvania State University. The successful program got the company’s name in front of the university’s top students in the sector, and got them thinking about working for this company, he says.

“Schools want to place their students after graduation," Ice says. "If your company offers a possible place to do so, they’re likely to work with you. Working with them this way is a very low-cost way to possibly improve the skills of prospective hires and give yourself a new source of talent.”

Build a Better Internship

Internships and co-ops are often managed poorly and give little benefit students or employers, Ice says. The key to success is to create programs that expose these short-term workers to as many aspects of the company’s operations as possible. In addition, Ice says interns need to handle actual projects as they’re supervised and be given feedback, much like they would if a company was attempting to quickly integrate a new employee into operations.

In addition, be explicit about the skills you need as you train interns. Explain how they can extrapolate experiences and competencies from many jobs and life skills. Ask them to think about how they showed initiative at a part-time job or came up with an improvement on an existing process in an extracurricular activity. Sometimes, students don’t look beyond their own employment history, but may have skills they’ve developed in other areas, he says.

[Image: Flickr user mezzaninemoscow]

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