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Workers Don’t Have the Skills They Need – and They Know It

September 19, 2014

 

How do workers feel about the adequacy of their skills? Until now, few studies have examined their views. Today, a survey of employees is being released that provides strong confirmation of the notion that employees need better skills to do their jobs well, especially skills related to technology.

 

Over the past decade, employers have repeatedly reported that they have difficulty finding workers with the skills needed for today’s jobs. But influential voices have challenged this finding. For instance, The New York Times Editorial Board calls the notion of a skills gap “mostly a corporate fiction,” saying “don’t blame the workforce.” They claim that employers just “want schools and, by extension, the government to take on more of the costs of training workers that used to be covered by companies as part of on-the-job employee development.”

 

The new survey, commissioned by Udemy, a company that provides online training courses, sharply challenges the view that the skills gap is a corporate fiction. Polling 1,000 randomly selected Americans between the ages of 18 and 65, the survey found that 61% of employees also feel that there is a skills gap. Specifically, 54% report that they do not already know everything they need to know in order to do their current jobs. Moreover, about one third of employees report that a lack of skills held them back from making more money; a third also report that inadequate skills caused them to miss a promotion or to not get a job.

 

The most important skills that employees are missing are computer and technical skills. Of those reporting that they needed skills for their current job, 33% reported lacking technical skills, including computer skills. Management skills were second most important.

 

The skills gap is not mainly about too little schooling. Survey respondents made clear that the skills learned in school differ from those required on the job; so while schooling is important, it’s not sufficient preparation for success at work. Of survey respondents who went to college, only 41% reported that knowledge learned in college helps them succeed in their current job. Seventy-two percent of respondents report that they needed to learn new skills for their current job. More generally, respondents reported acquiring those new skills in a variety of ways: some took formal, in-person classes, some took online courses, and many relied on informal learning from colleagues and other sources.

 

According to the survey, employers generally play an important role in helping workers learn. Employers paid for the majority of workers who reported taking paid online or in-person courses. And 30% reported that employers are very helpful at helping them gain new job skills; another 46% report that employers were somewhat helpful.

 

The overall picture is consistent with the view that new technology — especially information technology — is raising the skill level needed to thrive in the workplace. Schools don’t teach all of these skills and consequently on-the-job learning is very important. Employers aren’t the only ones who recognize this challenge. Employees know the skills gap is real, and they’re trying to close it.

 

About the Author

 

James Bessen is a scholar who studies the economics of innovation and patents. He has also been a successful innovator and CEO of a software company. Currently, Mr. Bessen is Lecturer in Law at the Boston University School of Law.


Bessen has done research on whether patents promote innovation, why innovators share new knowledge, and how technology affected worker skills historically. His research first documented the large economic damage caused by patent trolls. His work on software patents with Eric Maskin (Nobel Laureate in Economics) and Robert Hunt has influenced policymakers in the US, Europe, Australia and elsewhere. With Michael J. Meurer, Bessen wrote Patent Failure (Princeton 2008), highlighting the problems caused by poorly defined property rights. A forthcoming book, Learning by Doing: The Real Connection Between Innovation, Wages, and Wealth (Yale 2015), looks at history to understand how new technologies affect wages and skills today. Bessen’s work has been widely cited in the press as well as by the White House, the U.S. Supreme Court, judges at the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, and the Federal Trade Commission.

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