Do We Have a Skills Gap or an Expectations Gap?

The Skills Gap is a term that we use to describe any time an employer can’t find the right worker with the right skills for the right job at the right time.  Usually, we think of it as a binary proposition; either we have the worker at hand or we don’t.

McGraw Hill has been doing research on a different type of skills gap — the level of preparation of college students for the jobs they get.  In this case – the workers have been hired but they may be missing some of the requisite skills the employer cares about.

The survey is called the “2018 McGraw-Hill Education Future Workforce Survey.”  In this fifth annual McGraw-Hill Education Future Workforce Survey, representing over 1,000 college students, the survey looks at their confidence, motivation, influences, and job prospects as they prepare for their future careers.  The report is found at:

One aspect of this that is fascinating to me is in how recently hired college graduates feel about their readiness vs. what their employers perceive.  When I looked at the data for the first time in 2015, there was about a 30-point perception gap between college grads and employers.  In the newest survey, across all the skills and attributes identified, the average gap is 17.1 points; it is still a significant gap, but it’s narrower than in the past. In a couple areas, the employers feel new workers are MORE ready than the workers themselves (teamwork and technology).

Here are the specific skills that the McGraw-Hill Survey asks about:

  • Professionalism/Work Ethic (77% perceived college grad readiness vs. 43% readiness perceived by employers, a 34-point gap)
  • Teamwork/Collaboration (73% vs. 77%, -4-point gap)
  • Critical Thinking/Problem Solving (66% vs 56%, 10-point gap)
  • Digital Technology (61% vs. 66%, -5-point gap)
  • Leadership (61% vs. 33%, 25-point gap)
  • Oral/written communication (61% vs. 42%, 19-point gap)
  • Career management (53% vs. 18%, 36-point gap)
  • Global/intercultural fluency (40% vs. 20%, 20-point gap)

I think it’s more accurate to call this an Expectations Gap that a pure Skills Gap. Young workers may feel ready because they earned a college degree, and in general, they know the job market is pretty good for college graduates. Employers, on the other hand, experience far too many new hires that underwhelm them.

Here’s a hidden nugget I discovered that may contribute to the Expectations Gap.

While about 60% of these college graduates had the opportunity to do a work-based learning experience in their field of study, ONLY 36% of college graduates actually participated in an internship.  That means that only a little more than 1/3 of college graduates are getting a real taste of the workforce, in their field of study, prior to college graduation.

So, it’s not too surprising if many of them have a distorted sense of reality.

The data for high school students is even weaker in terms of experiencing work-based learning or part-time work.  We don’t have exact numbers, but only one of our six high schools offer a significant level of work-based learning like internships and job shadows.[1]  Further, part time jobs for high school students also have fallen dramatically; back in 1979, 58 percent of teens were working but now it’s about 36 percent.  And if current trend lines continue, teen employment will fall to 26 percent by 2024.[2]

The simple implication is this:  Our high school students and college students need meaningful work-based learning experiences to be better prepared for the workplace.  The expectations gap will continue unless we shape their expectations through better experiences.

We know that meaningful work-based learning is happening for some students.  The goal of Career Connected Learning (CCL) is to draw upon these experiences and to dramatically scale up work-based learning over the next five to seven years.  The data tells us the trends lines are heading in the wrong direction, but CCL can bend the curve back in a direction that is good for our youth and good for our country.

NCES, 2016, Role of Formal Education and Work Programs, Data Point, NCES 2018-058

[2] Teri Morisi on March 9, 2017, Teens Trends, U.S. Department of Labor Blog,

Hans Meeder is President of NC3T, the National Center for College and Career Transitions ( NC3T provides planning, coaching, technical assistance and tools to help community-based leadership teams plan and implement their college-career pathway systems and strengthen employer connections with education.

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