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UW-Madison associate professor challenges notion of blaming higher ed for “skills gap”

A UW-Madison assistant professor is challenging the notion that blame for the “skills gap” falls solely upon higher education.

Matthew T. Hora, research scientist at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research and author of “Beyond the Skills Gap,’’ addressed about 60 people at the UW-Madison Education Building today for the launch of the new book.

The book builds upon, and critiques, the idea that misalignment between higher education and workforce needs is a result of inadequate training on the part of higher education systems in Wisconsin.

“Our main conclusion from the book is that we need to reject this narrative, and adopt a vision of higher education that acknowledges collective responsibility for this,” said Hora.

The book was written in conjunction with co-authors Ross Benbow and Amanda Oleson, and compiles their primary research done as part of a statewide study into the various players in the education game.

They discussed the “skills gap” issue with policymakers, educators, administrators and business leaders statewide, and concluded the issue is not as simple as many make it out to be. Hora and his co-authors found that although hiring challenges exist, “they’re not just caused by education and educational preparation.”

Hora pointed to a ManpowerGroup survey that showed that since the Great Recession, about 40 percent of employers said they have a hard time finding skilled workers.

“What this means is that 60 percent are not having a hard time. What’s important to recognize here is that it’s almost always in a certain number of occupations,” said Hora.

He pointed to skilled laborers, sales reps, engineers, technicians and nurses as some of the common occupations where gaps exist.

“So when it comes to hiring challenges and skill shortages, it’s almost always exclusively about a predetermined and pretty small number of occupations,” said Hora.

He mentioned that while technical skill sets are in high demand, many other variables, including lifestyle factors, keep companies from finding the right kind of worker to fill positions.

Referencing survey data assembled by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, he said “manufacturers talked about drug and alcohol problems, their facilities being located out in rural areas where nobody wanted to move to, and especially low wages and benefits as reasons why they couldn’t find skilled workers.”

Aside from these concerns on the marketplace side of the equation, Hora called out the state government for cutting higher education funding under Gov. Scott Walker.

“If we want these skill sets, we need to invest in teachers. We need to make sure that the skilled professionals on the frontlines of teaching have the support systems in place to do their jobs,” said Hora. “For this to happen we need to have a government that provides adequate funding to keep the system afloat, and to support, both rhetorically and practically, the skills infrastructure.”

He insisted that the budget cuts strongly impact teachers’ ability to do their jobs, adding “we can’t ignore the harmful impact of budget cuts that have been enacted at the UW System for the last four years.”

But he acknowledged that schools do play a role in the situation.

“One of the really important things to recognize is that the skills gap idea has some truth to it,” said Hora. “Higher education is a sector that has to change.”

Some of his criticisms include the rising price tag of college, already existing job shortages for some occupations, and an excess of “sit-and-get” instruction—the education structure that takes place in a big lecture hall where a professor attempts to directly transmit knowledge to hundreds of students.

An alternative to that more traditional format, said Hora, is active learning, where students solve problems and connect with others, building communication skills simultaneously with technical hard-science skills.

While there is flexibility inherent in a constantly changing educational system, Hora looks to the past for a reminder of why it exists in the first place.

“We need to think about the history of higher education in our country, and how it was founded on some of the principles of preparing people to participate in a representative democracy so they can question the government and engage in civic discourse,” said Hora. “When we start to eliminate missions of higher education from the picture, and the search for truth, we have to ask ourselves: What is the cost?”

--By Alex Moe


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