Practical Skills to Close the Job Gap: Risks that Bring Reward

The week before Thanksgiving, I attended the annual National Association of Gifted Children (NAGC) conference for teachers of gifted and talented students along with 4,000 others. One of the opening sessions featured Dr. Howard Gardner, Dr. Joseph Renzulli, and Dr. Robert Sternberg, all intelligence experts from varying points of view. Sternberg, in particular, addressed the disconnect between what we are teaching in school and the needs of the world of work, where graduates are falling short.

You might think that the eight percent unemployment rate is a blatant indicator that there aren’t enough jobs in America, however, fixing today’s unemployment rate is not simply a matter of creating more jobs. In fact, there are three million available jobs today but not enough skilled workers to fill the positions.  One could argue that we are, in many ways, over-emphasizing tests and analytical intelligence in school and through the super-programmed structure of many students’ out-of-school life.  These “structures” and emphases come at the expense of balancing the soft skills—or emotional intelligence—students and graduates need to succeed.   The time others spent in previous generations exploring and observing in unstructured time is now taken up by club activities and for those who aren’t involved, endless hours on the internet or games. While these out of school pursuits have their place, is there a way to strike some balance between the doing and the being?  Between the structured and the unstructured that can build transferable skills in our students?

The skills gap that is keeping many out of job and many jobs empty asks us to evaluate more than the condition of our economy; it asks us to question if we are doing enough to prepare our students for the workforce and if we are placing enough value on soft skills that help them graduate from high school and college. Today’s students must leave school with a wide range of skills in their arsenal. But which transferable skills are most critical for a new generation? Some argue grads need analytical skills to navigate the increasingly technical workforce, however, the analytical mind is usually guilty of being over-engineered and out of touch with the soft skills that help them make connections, network, and fit more easily into a wide range of jobs.

That’s why the graduate with practical skills has a history of landing a job. In his article “How to Bridge the Hiring Gap,” Robert W. Goldfarb paints a picture of the graduate employers used to recruit:

At one time, employers recruited liberal arts graduates whose broad education shaped an inquiring mind and the ability to evaluate conflicting points of view. Their education also brought a freshness of vision that saw alternatives to outdated practices. Graduates entered corporate training programs armed mainly with potential, but soon absorbed business disciplines. Veteran employees seeing that growth didn’t laugh when a trainee suggested a different approach to a chronic problem. (The New York Times)

However, today’s recruiter wants someone who is ready to walk into a technical position on day one without any additional training or mentorship. It seems there is another gap starting to open: A gap between what hirers desire and the reality of the workforce. Though the number of technical jobs has changed over the last few decades, the human ability to adapt and learn in a new environment has not. Is there any harm to training a bright person armed with practical skills how to fill a technical job — especially when there are 3 million of them?

Robert Sternberg, long the pioneer and advocate for more inclusive ways of seeing intelligence, ability, and talent, developed the theory of “successful intelligence.”  To do well in the world, Sternberg argues, you need analytical, creative, and practical intelligence. School fosters analytical intelligence, but the world is demanding that our students aquire more than just knowledge.  The global world and our new economy requires students who can apply that knowledge to accomplish things in the world, in their professional and in their personal lives.  Without the problem-solving  skills and creativity to imagine the need for a new company, discover a different path for fighting a disease,  invent the new direction for a forty-year-old company to grow and prosper, positively dispute an unanswered insurance claim, and negotiate common and divergent life goals with a partner, graduates may not only lose out on a job commensurate with their skills, they may also suffer unnecessary depression, regret and hopelessness.

Experience not only teaches students; it makes them strong enough to take on increasingly complex life challenges. In addition to fostering analytical skills, let’s encourage students in high school and college to risk, to experience, to do something unique,  to have discussions with those who differ from them, to live in a different city from where they grew up, to expand, and to explore.  These qualities will teach them who they are, teach them wherewithal that cannot be learned in class, and show them the capacity that they have to contribute in the world in all areas of their lives.

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