Close the Skills Gap with Skills Not Degrees

Posted by on Tue, Oct 21, 2014

close the skills gap


There has been a lot of talk about the skills gap in the job market and moving away from the college degree as a result. Education and business leaders have declared the degree “broken” and “obsolete” and charged it with being an unreliable indicator of any real knowledge or skills. According to a recent survey, almost 60 percent of employers do not think that U.S. colleges and universities are adequately preparing students for the workforce. This system is obviously not working, but we are having a hard time switching away from it, partially because we don’t yet have an agreed-upon system to replace it and partially because the costs of switching are seen as too high.

[Update your job skills with an affordable online certificate.]

Change Depends on Cost

A University Ventures article describes how disruptions in travel and real estate met with opposite results due to the costs of switching away from the dominant model: Expedia successfully moved customers away from travel agents, while Zillow did not successfully move customers away from real estate agents. The reason was the vastly different costs of switching—make a mistake in travel and you have a bad vacation; make a mistake in buying or selling a house and you have a significantly bigger problem. Real estate agent Richard Morrison put it aptly: “Real estate agents are still a thriving breed because the outcomes matter so deeply to people.”

In education, the agents are colleges and universities. Students trust them to prepare them for the workforce, and employers trust them to provide well-prepared candidates. But despite the fact that neither the students nor the employers are getting what they want, the costs of trying something else are perceived as too high. For students, a bachelor’s degree translates into an additional $1 million over the course of a lifetime; for employers, a degree serves as a filter for wading through the average of 250 resumes they receive for every job opening.

[MOOCs—free online classes—help satisfy employers’ need for a skilled workforce.]

Tech Industry Leads the Way

However, there are some companies that are starting to move away from the agent system and toward a model that is beneficial for both students and employers. Not surprisingly, the trendsetter in this movement is the tech industry. This industry has faced one of the largest skills gaps as technology has advanced and traditional computer science programs have failed to prepare students to meet the skyrocketing demand—four-year programs take too long and many don’t teach the newest languages that companies are looking for.

In response, tech companies have been partnering with code schools—intensive coding programs. Through these partnerships, students attain real job skills in a short period of time and employers have access to a pool of well-trained applicants. The success of these programs has been astounding. DevBootCamp, the first code school, now has locations in Chicago and San Francisco and will soon open in New York. Hack Reactor boasts a 98 percent graduate hiring rate, with the average salary around $110,000—after only 12 weeks of intense training.  OrangeSoda, an internet marketing company, described these types of coding programs as “one of the quickest ways to find the right technical talent for our company. We know that graduates of these programs were taught effectively because they learned from a mentor and not just by sitting in a class.”

[Read: A Job as Essential as Your Smartphone: Information Technology]

Education needs to move away from agents and toward a system that actually works. The first step in this transformation is for employers to recognize that the skills gap can only be filled by actual skills, not by degrees. The switching cost may seem high now, but time will reveal that this is only an illusion.


switching away from the college degreeDavid Blake is the cofounder of Degreed, author at MOOCs, and a Stanford d.School EdTech Entrepreneur. Fast Company wrote, “Why can’t we take robotics at Carnegie Mellon, linear algebra at MIT, law at Stanford? And why can’t we put 130 of these together and make it a degree?” Now you can take courses from any university and learn from the best resources from across the web with Degreed.

Comments (1)

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  1. Jellie says:

    Some other avenues that should be further developed are using community service and internships to build skills for students. Companies that lack skilled workers should be creating more opportunities for students to learn hands on as interns.

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