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Jan Lee headshot

What Skills Do Young People Need to Succeed?

By Jan Lee


Many businesses face a common challenge these days: Finding enough qualified workers for an increasingly technical workplace. According to Code.org, by 2020 there will be as many as 1 million more computer jobs available than there will be skilled applicants.

And it’s a problem that isn’t just limited to computer coding jobs, either. The manufacturing sector, long the go-to resource for on-the-job training, is facing a dearth of applicants. So are university-skilled professions like medical, dental and teaching positions.

According to a report by the Society of Human Resource Management, HR specialists were already seeing a looming shortage in skill-ready applicants in a number of sectors by 2016. More than 65 percent of professionals across the markets confirmed recruiting enough applicants was becoming challenging.

The problem, say experts, isn’t just the new technical skills that may be required, but what analysts call a “skills perception gap” between what employers want and what the applicant perceives is needed for the job.

On the applicant’s side, more than half who responded to a survey by AfterCollege stated that college didn’t prepare them adequately for the skills they would need in their career.

Bridging that gap between the employer’s perception and that of a prospective applicant starts at the educational institution, says Lydia Liu, Senior Research Director, Academic to Career Research Center at Educational Testing Service (ETS). Liu oversees research that helps ETS develop appropriate testing modules for higher education graduates and innovative science assessment mechanisms for grades K-12. Her research team is responsible for helping to design new student learning outcome assessments for today’s workplace applicants.

Liu said it isn’t enough for the applicant to be able to demonstrate that they are trained in their specialty. These days employers need to know that the new hire will be able adapt to an ever-changing work environment. They’ll look for a bevy of competencies, such as critical thinking and communication skills that complement today’s global work settings and diverse workforce.

And to determine if the applicant has the resilience and capability to work in an environment that is subject to change, the employer may want to test for social emotional skills to see how the new trainee works in teams or collaborative settings – environments that are often part of today’s evolving work setting.

“So nowadays the job candidates really need to have a wide range of skills for them for function effectively in the workforce,” said Liu.

To complement those needs, ETS has been developing a new set of testing modules that help employers ensure that the applicant they are looking at hiring not only has the domain-specific skills, like biology, physics or computer coding, but has the “transferable” skills that would allow an employee to successfully transition into a new job as the employment landscape changes, or advancement becomes available.

That’s because employers have learned in recent years to harness the skills and talents they have on board, said Dan Hawthorne, Lead I/O Solutions Engineer at ETS’ Strategic Business Unit. A low unemployment rate has helped to create an “employee’s market” and encouraged employers to look for personality and social traits that they feel give workers the ability to work well in teams as well as demonstrate ingenuity.

“These days, Hawthorne said, “people [are often] working in very matrix teams and positions that they may not have necessarily been hired for. So they are having to move around a lot.”

He said the feedback from businesses is that “grit” or resilience and flexibility are now highly preferred skills.

Liu said ETS’ new program, HEIghten, tests for five generic core strengths that help illumine those attributes and are now considered beneficial in most workplace settings: critical thinking, intercultural communication and diversity, quantitative literacy, civic competency and engagement and written communication.

And she admitted that the knowledge points for scholastic tests are definitely different than they were for previous generations of workers.

“If we look at the skills and knowledge the competencies required 20 year ago, a lot of them are pretty different from the expectations from the workforce today,” said Liu. “So it is really important for both the education sector and the employers to anticipate what changes are taking place.

“[It] is not enough for [educational institutions] to teach the domain-specific knowledge. They will need to find ways to help promote the social-emotional skills … and also more transferable skills, such as intercultural competency and diversity,” which ETS describes as “the ability to communicate effectively and appropriately in intercultural situations based on one's intercultural knowledge, skills and attitudes.”

Oftentimes higher education institutions have a greater role than teaching the specialized knowledge that students are looking for,” Liu added. And to the prospective job applicant, they can make the difference when it comes to transitioning to today’s workplace, where skill sets are changing.

“We understand that for higher institutions, helping students find a job is not the only purpose or objective of higher education. But for many families that have to shoulder the financial burden and time investment, finding a good job is a priority. So connecting the higher ed and workforce should become a priority,” she said.

A survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) corroborated this finding. The AACU found in 2015 that graduates believed they were well-prepared for the workforce when they left college or university, whereas employers found their skills were often lacking.

Liu said to address this problem, ETS researchers reached out to university and college administrators to find out what it was that they needed tests to address.

“We actually reached out to over 200 higher education institutions and interviewed their vice provosts or vice presidents for academic affairs to understand their assessment priorities.” ETS then developed the five modules based on what interviewers heard from scholastic institutions – and then took a step further to develop modules that would help instructors bring students up to the level that employers expect.

“[We] also realize it is not enough to just tell people, OK, 80 percent of your students are at the developing level. Naturally the next question would be then how can I help my students improve, and we believe it is also important to start working on training or learning materials that students can use to improve those skills,” Liu said.

An important component of ETS’ testing programs is addressing the worker whose job is slated to be phased out or blended with another. When it comes to evaluating learners, Hawthorne said, it’s the well-trained, long-term employee that nowadays has to be considered.

“One of the things we have been looking at is how to identify that intersection between existing jobs that may be declining and new jobs that are coming up.” said Hawthorne. Figuring out how to test transitioning workers to not only help the employer fill challenging, new job positions but aid the employee in determining a new career paths is one of ETS’ current goals.

Liu and Hawthorne said there were steps that employers, educational institutions and prospective applicants could take to make the process of filling jobs more successful.

To the prospective applicant Liu had this advice: Increase awareness of what’s expected to apply for a particular job and be well-rounded in knowledge. Hone their generic and transferable skills. “Because whether they can function effectively in their intercultural team, whether they can handle conflict resolution, whether they can communicate effectively verbally and in writing is critically important,” Liu said.

Businesses and educators will both want to reach out to each other’s venues to test and ensure their expectations are being met, said Hawthorne. To businesses: “Communicate out to educators and try to deliver the message of what you really need or what you see as challenges. There has been quite a bit of research showing that there are gaps between what students are coming out of schools with and what businesses expect.”

Image credit: Pixabay

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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