By Jon Christian
August 30, 2011
Caption : Report: College graduates often lack the skills necessary for the job market.      

High unemployment and dropout rates are likely to cost students as they enter the job market. But a recent report suggests they’re also challenged by a “skills gap,” or a widespread shortfall of job-specific training which damages workplace productivity and economic output.

The report (PDF) by testing company ACT Inc., titled “A Better Measure of Skills Gaps,” parts ways with the common idea that skills gaps are mainly a problem for workers with low levels of educational achievement. On the contrary, ACT researchers found widespread, cross-industry gaps in required skills across levels of educational achievement—with the most highly-educated individuals often the least prepared for the skills their positions demand.

“This research implies that, as foundational skill requirements increase for occupations across many industries, a higher level of education does not prepare individuals for the level of workplace skills demanded by employers,” reads the report.

Researchers started by defining a skills gap as “the difference between the skills needed for a job versus those skills possessed by a prospective worker” —a model at odds with many sophisticated economic and psychological definitions used in existing analysis.

To assess the skills gap in these straightforward terms, ACT analyzed data from its proprietary skills survey, JobPro, which includes skill and task data for more than 18,000 jobs over 17 years. ACT researchers grouped individuals in the database by education level and assessed their skills based on "Reading for Information," "Locating Information" and "Applied Mathematics."

Comparing respondents’ skills to those needed to perform in their respective fields, results proved discouraging. Within the four key industries they examined, researchers found “significant foundational skills gaps” between what workers are prepared to do and what their jobs require of them.

Among jobs in the energy industry, for example, researchers found that only 12 percent of individuals with at least a bachelor’s degree either met or exceeded their jobs’ required skills for applied mathematics, and a mere 2 percent had the necessary chops for locating information. They fared slightly better at "reading for information," with 59 percent meeting or exceeding the skill requirements.

While the report shies away from specific policy suggestions, the severity of the skills gap it demonstrates suggests that public and college education systems are failing to prepare students for “real world” jobs, particularly in mathematics and critical thinking.

“There is a new reality for both workforce developers and education/training providers: that a significant segment of today's labor force does not have the requisite skills demanded by employers,” reads the report.

The report recommends that skills gap assessment be carried out on the state level in additional to national research.

ACT, Inc is a not-for-profit which provides work and education assessment resources and research. They are best-known for administering the ACT standardized test, which is widely used to assess college preparedness in young people.

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