Missed connections - Policymakers misdiagnose skills needed to fill jobs gap

By Steven Potter, the Isthmus

When David Mead needs to add a scientist to the ranks of his biotech company, he’s usually stuck choosing between two vastly different types of candidates.
“When we get undergraduates [from a university], they tend to have a lot of book knowledge but very little technical lab skills,” says Mead, owner of Lucigen Corp. in Middleton. “And when we hire people with associate degrees [from a technical college], they have a lot of lab skills but not a lot of theoretical or book knowledge.”
This so-called skills gap — where employers have jobs available but can’t find employees with the right skills to fill them — is nothing new. “It’s always been a problem,” says Mead, whose company, which specializes in biological tools for life science research, has doubled in size to 66 employees since 2010.
The skills gap has been blamed, in part, for Wisconsin lagging behind other Midwestern states during the economic recovery. Depending on who you ask, the blame shifts between employers accused of not offering high enough wages to post-secondary educators being shamed for not keeping pace with industry needs.
Gov. Scott Walker calls addressing the skills gap “a top priority,” and implemented financial initiatives in the 2013 budget for apprenticeships and worker training grants.
But that effort is missing its mark, says a UW researcher who released a study on the skills gap this week. The “focus on technical skills alone is a short-sighted approach,” says Matthew Hora, a scientist with the UW’s Wisconsin Center for Education Research. “It’s taking a really complex problem and coming up with an overly simplistic solution.”
“Wisconsin policymakers have misdiagnosed the skills gap problem and consequently have devised overly narrow policy solutions,” Hora writes in his report “On the Wrong Track: How Workforce and Higher Education Policy Reflects a Misdiagnosis of the ‘Skills Gap.’”
Hora surveyed almost 150 employers and educators in the biotechnology and advanced manufacturing fields, discovering that more than technical skills are needed for an employee’s long-term success.
Instead, Hora says, employers and educators found common ground in stressing a need for “soft skills” — the ability to think critically, work hard, communicate clearly and work on a team. “It’s a complex set of attributes and knowledge [that is needed] — it’s not just any one thing,” he says. “The foundational skill is knowing how to learn.”
An established method to teach these skills, Hora says, is using interactive classrooms.
“The best way to do it is hands-on learning. That could be an apprenticeship where you’re combining academic and on-the-job training; it could be training in a four-year program in biology where you’re doing experiments and learning how to design an experiment,” he says. “It could be at a technical college where you’re doing problem-based learning.”
Hora’s study, which was funded by a grant from the federal government’s National Science Foundation, recommends providing funds to teach educators and workplace trainers hands-on learning techniques; fostering more education-industry partnerships; and ending the vilification of educators as the cause of the skills gap.
He also recommends the Wisconsin Fast Forward grant program disperse training funds beyond  manufacturing. Since the program was founded in 2013, 53% of its funds have gone to manufacturing.
“[Manufacturing], which has a lot of political power here, has been particularly outspoken about the issue, but how many young people are going into the skilled trades? Not a whole lot,” says Hora, adding that health care, business and information technology are growing at a faster rate.
Jim Morgan, president of the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce Foundation, however, makes no apologies about his industry getting the lion’s share of the WFF grants. “The estimates are that with every manufacturing job you create, you create two other auxiliary jobs, and that’s not true in any other industry,” he says. “Manufacturing causes a ripple effect.”
Who should pay for innovative job training is another area of dispute.
“If we look at the state as the only way to get this fixed, we would be stunting our growth big time,” says Rep. Bob Kulp (R-Stratford), chair of the Youth Workforce Readiness Task Force, a committee created by the Republican-controlled Assembly and charged with exploring collaboration between educators and employers. “Industry needs what education has. Industry has money to make that happen.”
Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point), the vice chair of the committee, counters that the state’s recent, deep cuts to education exacerbate the problem. “At the end of the day, it has to do with the lack of investment in education at all levels,” she says. “We really need to invest in our education, from pre-K through higher education — and if you look at the last five years, you’ve seen the opposite of that.”