Mind the Skills Gap

Mind the Skills Gap

I began my working life at McDonald’s.  I was in high school, as were many of my coworkers.  According to McDonald’s, we had the “best first job.”

In today’s economy, maybe that is no longer true.  But, 30 years ago, when I worked at a McDonald’s on the corner of two busy state highways, it truly was the best first job.

McDonald’s was built to be a first job. They understood that high school kids couldn’t run restaurants.  But yet, they actively recruited them, and taught them how to cook eggs, burgers, and apple pies.  

Looking back, I think McDonald’s accepted a responsibility for training its employees, and even excelled at training kids who had never held a job — aside from babysitting or mowing lawns.  McDonald’s recognized that entry-level jobs required an investment.  And they invested in a lot of successful people. Pink, Jay Leno, and even Jeff Bezos once worked at McDonald’s.

Today, I wonder whether employers accept any responsibility for training entry-level people.  

Certainly, you too have heard the phrase “skills gap.”  Typically, the phrase is used to summarily describe frustration with the quality of candidates available for hire.  Rarely, though, is the phrase followed by a list of specific skills absent from the workforce.

In fact, specific evidence of a skills gap is so lacking that not everyone agrees that a gap even exists.  Sometimes you’ll see headlines about the “skills gap myth.”  Other times, you’ll see survey results revealing a high percentage of executives who believe the “skills gap is real.”  

For those who believe in the reality of the skills gap, they always have someone or something to blame. Two recurring culprits are education and employees.

Colleges aren’t doing enough.  High schools are all about testing.  Education in America needs an overhaul.  Or, employees are unwilling to invest in themselves.  They seek the wrong degrees.  They acquired skills now obsolete.

Again, nothing specific, just these broad swipes of blame.

I’ve yet to encounter a broad swipe at employers.  

If an employer is seemingly held accountable for the “gap,” it doesn’t last long.  In the next sentence or breath, it’s explained that employers are reluctant to invest in employees who could take that training and use it elsewhere.  

And, there ends the conversation about how employers might be to blame.  There’s never an analysis about whether employers have an overarching responsibility to train entry-level employees.

Going back to my days at McDonald’s, I remember Burger King was directly across the street.  I can’t imagine frying a vat of BK fries was much different from McDonald’s.  Granted, Burger King did flame broil burgers and that was different.  But, really, the work of taking customers’ orders and putting food on a tray was virtually identical.  

But, McDonald’s never failed to train me out of fear that I might leave for Burger King. 

In fact, McDonald’s understood that I, and many of my coworkers, would one day leave for college. That never stopped them from investing in me and teaching me, making me a more versatile employee.  

McDonald’s, as well as many other employers, built multimillion dollar businesses with entry-level employees.  They invested in these employees with full knowledge and understanding that many of them were on the first leg of a long working career.  A career that would in no way involve fast food, bagging groceries, or stocking shelves.  

Today, it seems that employers believe education — high school, college, trade school — bears the full burden of producing tomorrow’s workers.  But, truly, no amount of education will completely eliminate the skills gap.   Employers must bear some of the burden.

If I were to walk back into McDonald’s today, holding both a college and law school degree, I wouldn’t have the right skills.  Even as a former employee, I wouldn’t have the right skills.  So much has changed in the equipment and processes, that I would need to be retrained all over again.  

There will always be a skills gap.  And, quite truthfully, the gap will only grow as we move further into the 4th Industrial Revolution.  There’s no avoiding it.  

Both sides of the equation — employers and employees — need to be prepared to make an investment in closing the ever widening gap.  But, I fear, without greater recognition of the role employers play in closing this gap, employees and education will continue to unfairly shoulder the blame.

As work evolves in the age of automation and AI, it is important to pay attention to the conversations.  When you hear or read the old familiar phrase “skills gap,” pay particular attention.  Listen for specifics.  If you hear none, be weary of the accuracy of the information that follows.  

And, think of McDonald’s, and how at one point they were willing to train everyone.  Even those they knew would leave. Even those that left and built their own empires in music, television and online shopping. 

Perhaps, the McDonald’s of my youth understood something now forgotten — that they were investing not just in McDonald’s, but in the greater economic good.  They helped create today’s workforce.  That’s exactly the kind of collaboration we need now to best support tomorrow’s workers.

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