Is the Skills Gap a Myth?

Anyone in a STEM field has heard about the tremendous need for proficient workers and the lack of qualified applicants. If you’re in management, you might chalk up your trouble finding talented personnel to a skills gap. If you’re a recent graduate who’s starting a career, though, you may wonder why anyone believes there’s a gap when jobs are still scarce and hiring is flat. Why are STEM graduates still having trouble finding work when businesses see a skills gap?

Whichever side of the equation you’re on, understanding why managers perceive a skills gap while entry-level applicants see a high wall can help you move past the obstacle.

Doing More with Fewer Employees

Although the economy’s reviving, years of shortfalls and limited horizons have driven many companies into a siege mentality. They’re more likely to turn to the personnel they already have to fill positions than to risk expansion. If an existing employee can be trained to take over a new position as well as an existing one, it’s a cost-saving measure. It’s cheaper to train the people in charge of fabrication to handle quality assurance too. That double duty precludes a company from hiring new employees.

Doubling down on employee training and downsizing the work force isn’t always ideal even though it saves a company money in the short term. Personnel who move too far outside their comfort zones feel overtaxed, leading to burnout. For employers, forcing specialists to become generalists could sacrifice quality for quantity. Talented newcomers to the field also lose out because they can’t find work soon after graduation. Some of them even leave their chosen field entirely.

Managers can avoid the up-skilling trap by looking closely at what their personnel currently do and where they’re stretched thin. This is an excellent time to shore up overburdened teams with entry-level employees or even expand departments with more experienced hires. For new engineering graduates approaching this roadblock from the other side, demonstrating your value and versatility can help. Let prospective employers know you’re able to fit yourself into the specific empty spaces their organization has.

Creeping Credentialism

Technical fields require a specialized education, but by looking only at the bona fides of that education, companies exclude a host of talented candidates. Learning through apprenticeship and self-guided exploration can be valuable too, and in some fields, it may even be preferable to traditional two-year and four-year degree programs. Slow economic growth is partially to blame here too; when profits have plateaued and financial forecasts are cautious, investing in candidates with the paperwork to prove their worth makes sense. As competition for scarce jobs has gotten more intense, graduates have gone back for more degrees and certifications, leading to an inevitable credential inflation.

It’s worth taking another look at what you expect of employees and how those credentials affect the work they do. A diploma might be essential, but specific IT certifications may not mean much for the day-to-day tasks you’re expecting a new hire to do. Certification isn’t a substitute for experience, so drill deeper into candidates’ resumes and don’t rely on resume-vetting software to push the best prospects to the top.

Applicants should also do their part to showcase their real value instead of pouring an alphabet soup of degree programs and certifications onto their resumes. Employers need to know what you’ve learned from earning your MCITP, CCNA and VCP. When possible, focus on your accomplishments and strengths rather than the paperwork. If you’ve spent time in an apprenticeship, talk it up; that real-world experience is a valuable asset that could give you the edge over credentialed but untested candidates.

Chasing a Moving Target

Students who see their degrees as a way to achieve career goals often pursue programs that fit what they believe will be a high-demand industry when they graduate. They don’t always guess correctly, leading to gluts in some industries and shortages in others. For some industries, the skills gap may be real but temporary. If employers can look ahead at where they plan to be in five years and offer apprenticeships, they can train their own talented workforce.

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