By Mike Berlin and Ira Sockowitz

Despite the frequency with which the term “skills gap” is used, that term may refer to a different set of workers and the issues they face, depending on with whom you are speaking.

It is no secret that employers are struggling to find skilled workers, while many workers find themselves lacking the skills that employers are seeking. This mismatch has well-documented detrimental effects for employers, employees and the economy. Available jobs are unfilled, the economy is stagnating, and workers don’t earn the decent wages that allow them to enter into, or remaining in, the middle class.

There are many players working to address the “skills gap” from every part of the economic development spectrum, including policymakers, business associations, employers, education and training providers, and philanthropy organizations. In the last week of September, while most of them were represented at two major conferences focused on adult learning and workforce development, they approached the same challenges from seemingly opposite ends of that spectrum. The Close It Summit attracted mostly employers and foundations focused on workforce development, while 400 miles away at the ProLiteracy Conference, the audience was primarily adult education practitioners. Given that they are disparately working to address the same problem, educating adults for job readiness and career pathways, we believe now is an opportune time for these constituencies to collaborate more closely. By doing so, they can learn from one another, find innovations to research and fund, and deploy sound pedagogical innovations to meet the breadth of the skills gap.

For many, perhaps even most, the term skills gap refers to what are known as “middle skills”—those that require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree—which have grown to be a requirement for an ever-expanding number of jobs, thanks in large part to the advancement of technology in the workplace. According to the National Skills Coalition’s analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data, “middle-skill jobs account for 53 percent of United States’ labor market, but only 43 percent of the country’s workers are trained to the middle-skill level.” The question is who will fill the other ten percent? And how do we provide them the training that they require?

This is where the other “skills gap” comes into play. We are referring to the gap in “foundational skills”—the ability to effectively use basic English language, literacy and numeracy skills—to get educational opportunities and start on career pathways. The statistics relating to those who lack foundational skills are staggering. According to the Survey of Adult Skills conducted by the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), there are 36 million working-age Americans who lack these foundational skills, two-thirds of whom—24 million adults—are already employed, but most often in low-wage, front-line jobs that provide limited opportunity for advancement. When speaking of “adult education” or “adult basic education,” (ABE) this is the population of learners being referred to.

Moreover, there is a real question of whether ABE learners are ready for additional skills training to move up the job ladder and into middle skills positions. Unfortunately, the entire adult education system reaches about 10% of those in need of training, and the efficacy of those efforts are not promising.

This is where the math gets simple: there are simply not enough trained people to fill all of the middle-skill positions that are currently available or predicted to require such skills in the near future. However, there are tens of millions of under-skilled adults who could fill those jobs but who are further down the education and skills ladder.

Which leads us back to the two major conferences we attended in September and the need for their respective audiences to understand that, as parts of a larger adult education continuum, they are facing the same issues and have a lot to learn from one another. The first event was the Close It Summit, an annual gathering of senior leaders from industry, philanthropy, and learning and training providers. The summit has various presentations on research and leading strategies connecting education to employment, with a focus on competency and skills-based hiring and training. With corporate America well represented, the conference has seemingly been more focused on the middle skills gap but we observed a growing amount of attention being paid to the foundational skills gap at this year’s event. This recognition was hinted at in panel discussions, special presentations, and the Showcase booths for service providers. While we are encouraged by the increased attention to the issue, we did not see the experts in the field of adult education presenting their proven pedagogical approaches and new innovative strategies for reaching low-skilled learners that could be adopted by these employers to reach a broader set of prospective workers.

The second event was the ProLiteracy Conference, also an annual gathering, of adult education practitioners, program administrators and advocates. The conference focuses on new tools and strategies for supporting adult education, primarily in ESL and literacy. Many attendees are from small- to medium-sized programs that serve from dozens to hundreds of learners. In addition to learning how to build instructional capacity to better serve adult learners and how to more effectively deliver literacy services, we observed a growing recognition of the need for, and efficacy of, partnerships with employers and industry associations. In part, this may stem from a change in their funding requirements under the federal Workforce Innovations and Opportunities Act (“WIOA”) that require the development of “career pathways” for their learners. Here too, while we were encouraged to see this growing recognition of corporate America’s needs, there was an absence of attendees or speakers from industry or major philanthropies at the conference discussing their needs and funding opportunities.

As our work takes us across these two sometimes disparate fields of adult education and corporate training, we believe that each would do well to learn from the other and collaborate to integrate the best of what each has to offer. For example, 59% of employers offer a formal tuition assistance program for post-secondary education, spending on average $4,308 per employee (per Lumina Foundation data). But as we pointed out earlier, there simply aren’t enough workers with the prerequisite education to fill middle skills jobs, so if corporate America wanted to apply a similar effort to develop lower-skilled workers, they should be looking to the proven techniques in foundational skills training. Not only would the adoption of proven methodologies be immediately applicable, but their deployment at scale might achieve greater cost-effectiveness and ROI. Similarly, the adult basic education providers should be looking at the growing interest among philanthropic and corporate organizations in foundational skills as an opportunity for collaboration for developing innovations in creating career pathways. These partners can bring not only funding but also the scale and metrics for testing these innovations with a target audience of workers.

Of course, our observations from these two conferences are only exemplary of how different constituencies, all of whom are interested in the same issue can, and should, work together. Creating a continuum of educational opportunities and skills training would ultimately solve both the foundational and middle skills gaps, providing better career pathways for more Americans seeking higher, family-supporting wages while simultaneously providing the skilled labor necessary to keep the American workforce competitive with the rest of the world.

Given the pressing needs of both learners and employers, now is the time for the tidbits of dialog we saw at these two conferences to become a larger discourse, replete with cross-sector thinking and the free-flowing exchange of ideas amongst and between these constituencies. When speaking of “adult education” means dealing with those who need foundation, middle or any other set of skills for employability, then we can all say we are addressing the “skills gap.”

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Mike Berlin is a Principal Consultant at Entangled Solutions. Follow him on Twitter at @iammikeberlin.

Ira Sockowitz is the founder and CEO of Learning Games Studios. Follow him on Twitter at @sockowitz.


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