While touring a factory in northern Wisconsin that makes millions of aluminum cans on a daily basis, we asked the plant manager whether he thought regional colleges and universities were meeting his company’s needs. He looked surprised by the question and answered, “You can’t teach [in a classroom] the way we make cans here.” If he had employees with basic skill sets in the field, he said, his company could train new hires to use their machinery and learn their procedures.
Similarly, the human resources director of a large plastics manufacturer told us, “As long as [employees] have the basic knowledge and certain abilities, we can typically teach them the skills that they need on the job -- that’s the bottom line.”
Such responses beg the question: What are these fundamental, even nonnegotiable skill sets that employers seek in their employees? This is a question that our research group is investigating within the biotechnology and advanced manufacturing industries in Wisconsin. As part of a three-year study, we have interviewed over 150 C.E.O.s, plant managers and human resource directors in companies large and small, as well as educators and administrators at two- and four-year colleges and universities across the state, asking them about the skills and aptitudes required to succeed.
The Dominant Narrative of the Skills Gap
Throughout Wisconsin, we have found that the answer to this question is more complicated and nuanced than the dominant narrative of the skills gap suggests.
That narrative is rather simple: employers need certain skills, usually said to be occupation-specific technical aptitudes. The nation’s high schools, colleges and universities, which should be preparing students for entry into the workforce, are failing to provide these skills. Because of the lack of technically skilled workers, the argument goes, many companies reportedly cannot take on new accounts or hire new workers.
The oft-reported notion that employers are unable to find appropriately skilled workers has become intertwined with the sentiment that the liberal education model and the broader College for All movement have produced too many students with poor career prospects and massive student debts. Stories abound of Starbucks baristas and parking lot attendants with expensive baccalaureate degrees in the humanities, while 70 percent of the new jobs created through 2020 in states like Wisconsin will require less than a four-year degree.
How big of a problem is this? Instead of being part of the normal ebb and flow of the labor market, some suggest that, when coupled with demographic shifts that include mass retirements of the baby boomer generation, a perfect storm may be brewing that spells disaster for certain sectors of the economy in Wisconsin and the nation -- even the White House is rushing to figure out how to solve the nation’s skills gap.
The Skills Gap and Public Policy
The solution to this state of affairs has been to continue pushing the educational sector to align its aims more closely with the supposed needs of employers.
In Wisconsin, the ascendancy of this viewpoint has manifested itself most directly in Governor Scott Walker’s approach to higher education policy. While the administration has recommended $300 million in cuts to the University of Wisconsin System, a network of two- and four-year public colleges and universities across the state, it has proposed language to the system’s charter about meeting workforce needs and directed over $35 million to develop new training programs in the state’s technical college system -- all with the explicit goal of recalibrating public education to meet the skills-related needs of the state’s employers.
This emphasis on tailoring education to fit industry needs has also taken root at the national level. In the 2015 State of the Union, President Obama underlined his intention to connect “community colleges with local employers to train workers to fill high-paying jobs like coding, nursing and robotics.”
As part of this effort, the president has also articulated a national goal of finding “faster pathways” for students to get “the best skills possible at the cheapest cost,” while in the past he famously poked fun at art history degrees.
At the state and national level, the policy response to the skills gap idea has been to focus almost exclusively on training students in the so-called hard skills, or the technical knowledge and ability to perform tasks like welding or computer-aided design programming in two-year technical colleges. This focus is also marked by an attendant de-emphasis on general education and the liberal arts across the entire postsecondary spectrum, but especially in the nation’s four-year colleges and universities.
Even if we grant the first (mostly unexamined) assumption of the skills gap narrative -- that institutions of higher education should be geared toward training students with the kinds of skills that industry leaders demand in the short term -- we are still faced with two important questions. First, do employers want new hires with solely technical skills? Second, do our current education policy choices actually reflect the desires of industry? The answer to both questions -- based on our extensive work in the field -- is no.
Employers Want More
While our research indicates that business leaders certainly need employees who have basic knowledge and technical expertise appropriate to their job type and industry, the evidence clearly indicates that they place a high premium on other qualities as well. These skill sets, often denigrated as soft skills, are not viewed as optional competencies but are indispensable complements to technical expertise.
Our data reveal that the skill that is in most demand among employers in Wisconsin is a strong work ethic. Employers spoke of work ethic not only in basic terms such as showing up to work on time but also in terms of being persistent and sticking with a problem until it is solved. Both employers and educators alike underscored the challenges that one person termed “the work ethic problem,” as it implicates not only formal education but also parenting, social norms and company-specific traditions and expectations.
Interestingly, a strong work ethic implicates another attribute that is rarely discussed in the skills gap debate -- the desire to continually learn throughout one’s working life, or what some call lifelong learning. This aptitude is particularly important given the rapidly evolving nature of technology and the subsequent changes in the workplace. “A diesel technician 10 years ago would work on the same pump every day for years and become experts in it,” one employer told us. “Now we're flowing employees to different product, so... we're really looking for people that can handle change and can adapt.”
Businesses are also searching for employees who can effectively work well in teams. For instance, the C.E.O. of a biotechnology firm spoke of the importance of collaboration in their team-based contract work. “We have an example here... a tremendous scientist, but virtually impossible to work with in a team,” he said. “That's just not conducive to the work we do.” An integral part of working in teams is also being an effective communicator, both in writing and in everyday conversation.
Employers also perceived critical thinking, or the ability to problem solve and think on one’s feet, as an important quality in new hires. An executive at a manufacturing company explained, “To be able to think analytically and problem solve... is a critical skill.”
A growing body of evidence supports these findings. A 2011 survey of manufacturing executives revealed that the most serious skills deficiencies were in the areas of problem solving, basic technical training, fundamental employability skills such as work ethic and technology skills. Along similar lines, the National Research Council, the industry-supported Partnership for 21st Century Skills and the Department of Labor are beginning to conceptualize skills in ways that extend beyond the traditional focus on hard skills alone.
Thus, the issues facing our workforce are much more complicated than a shortage of technically skilled employees that can be addressed through more fast-track programming in our nation’s two-year technical colleges. Indeed, what employers are seeking is not simply a cadre of workers who are technically proficient, but engineers who can work easily with customers, chemists who can write clear, succinct prose and CNC operators who can collaborate with coworkers.
While contemporary policy and rhetoric suppose an either/or dichotomy between technical training and liberal or general education, it is evident that employers want to see skills and aptitudes that are associated with both models of education. “To meld the creative side with the practical side,” as one manufacturer told us, should be the ideal. Instead, he and others found few job applicants who represented this ideal -- which is what we argue is the true skills gap.
Integrating Education and Training
Beyond a reconceptualization of which skills and attributes are needed to fuel the 21st-century economy, what is missing in the national debate is a clear plan of action for the nation’s business and postsecondary leaders.
In Wisconsin we have found numerous examples of educators and corporate trainers who have created education and training programs that focus on the entire skills spectrum. The key ingredients in these programs can be distilled to the following three components.
1. Appreciate the role of liberal and general education in preparing students for the workforce.
The thinking on essential workplace skills needs to shift from the traditional focus on technical training to a more comprehensive view that acknowledges liberal and general education’s role in cultivating these varied skill sets. This is not necessarily an argument for more art history majors or that cultivating varied skill sets is impossible in shorter-term programs, but that the modern workplace demands adaptability, broad-mindedness and creativity -- competencies that are well developed in programs based on a liberal or general education model. This is true for all postsecondary programs, from one-year certificates to baccalaureate degrees.
2. Support educators in using active learning techniques in all postsecondary classrooms.
A striking aspect of the skills gap debate is the lack of attention paid to issues of curriculum and instruction, especially approaches specifically designed to integrate technical, content-based instruction with other skill sets such as critical thinking and collaboration. These techniques, broadly known as active learning, are grounded in research from the learning sciences and include techniques such as problem-based learning, Socratic lecturing and peer instruction. Fortuitously, active learning is being actively promoted in colleges and universities across the country, particularly in the STEM disciplines.
But one thing is clear -- asking educators to teach the skill sets that employers need requires substantial resources, since few postsecondary teachers are trained in these instructional techniques. Yet the looming budget cuts to higher education in states such as Wisconsin, Louisiana and Arizona will likely translate into fewer resources to support professional development, and will ultimately mean that one of the principal tools for providing employers with the skilled workforce they so desire -- education -- is being rapidly undermined across the nation.
Other promising approaches include internships and apprenticeships, where the blending of academic training with real world experience frequently results in students who are highly sought after by employers. And as several of our study participants from industry have reminded us, the responsibility for cultivating these valued skill sets lies not only in the hands of our nation’s educational system, but also in corporate training programs that should also strive to integrate education in basic concepts with more hands-on training.
3. Create opportunities for partnerships between educators and employers.
While it was not uncommon to hear our study participants say lines of communication between local colleges and industry “do not exist,” we found that education-industry relationships are critical for both sharing of information about job opportunities and as a platform from which collaborative initiatives that leverage the respective strengths of each partner can emerge. Whether the result is an online corporate training program designed by local technical college educators or advisory councils where local business leaders have a voice in shaping the curriculum -- promising collaborations in Wisconsin usually depend on policy mandates or visionary leadership to bridge the gap between education and industry.
What Is the Purpose of Higher Education?
Ultimately, the skills gap debate raises questions about fundamental issues facing society, many of which are overlooked when the discussion devolves to a focus on what employers need or do not need from graduates. What is the purpose of higher education? Is the current effort to frame this purpose of higher education as primarily vocational in nature beneficial to our economy, our democracy and the long-term success of our population? These questions need to play a more central role in policy making and debates about education-industry relations. As the University of Wisconsin at Madison military historian and native Wisconsinite Lieutenant Colonel John Hall recently wrote, “I understand and respect the notion that the purpose of an education is to prepare students for a ‘good job,’” but “this is not the only purpose of an education.”
Matthew T. Hora is an assistant professor of adult teaching and learning at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Ross J. Benbow is an associate researcher at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at Madison. Amanda K. Oleson is an assistant researcher at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research.
"I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world," Walt Whitman declares in Leaves of Grass. How he ended the line without an exclamation point always puzzled me, but maybe it was implicit. The poet sang "the body electric," and every line was meant to zap the reader into a higher state of awareness.
Whitman would have been pleased to see the new American history textbook called The American Yawp -- and not just for its allusive title. As a sometime school teacher and educational reformer, he wanted "free, ample and up-to-date textbooks, preferably by the best historians" (to quote one discussion of this aspect of the poet's life). Yawp's 30 chapters cover American history from the last ice age through the appearance of the millennial generation. It has plenty about the founders and the origins of the U.S., but avoids a triumphalist tone and includes material on inequality -- including economic inequality -- throughout. It was prepared through the collaborative efforts of scores of historians. And the creators have published it online, for free.
The beta version was released, with no fanfare at all, at the start of the current academic year. By the fall, a revision will be issued in e-book format, suitable for use in an undergraduate survey course -- again, for free. Walt would surely approve.
I contacted the editors -- Joseph Locke, an assistant professor of history at the University of Houston-Victoria, and Ben Wright, an assistant professor of history and political science at the Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in south Georgia -- to find out more about The American Yawp. They collaborated in responding to my questions by e-mail. A transcript of the discussion follows.
Q: How did you go about writing (assembling?) your textbook? Did you collaborate via Listservs? Were there any face-to-face meetings?
A: Traditional textbooks usually begin with a single editor or a small team of editors searching for some unifying theme to tie together the many thematic strands of American history. Instead, we mirrored the way our profession already works. We believed that a narrative synthesis could emerge through the many innovations of our profession’s various subfields no less than through a preselected central theme. We therefore looked to a large and diverse yet loosely coordinated group of contributors to construct a narrative.
We began by mapping out potential contributions for all 30 chapters based on our experiences teaching the survey and in informal conversations with colleagues and potential chapter editors. We came up with things like “500 words on the election of 1860” and “300 words on the music and art of the Civil War.” We compiled these into lists.
Then, after tapping into the networks of scholars we knew, as well as scouring recent editions of major history journals, combing through lists of recent dissertations, browsing the rosters of university programs with traditional strengths in particular eras and soliciting contributors through social media and H-Net’s many history Listservs, we targeted scholars to write on these themes.
We had no trouble recruiting an adequate pool of qualified contributors. In fact, we ended up with over 300 historians writing for the project. This work was done almost exclusively online.
Q: Was it a matter of one person preparing a draft chapter and then other participants proposing changes?
A: Since a textbook should be more than a series of brief, disjointed topical entries, we began the work of synthesis. We recruited talented writers and scholars as chapter editors who went to work stitching submissions into coherent chapters. We then reviewed and edited drafts of all 30 chapters, particularly with an eye on ensuring greater narrative cohesion across the text.
During our beta year, we are soliciting feedback not only from our esteemed board of editorial advisers but from contributors and users through our parallel Comment Press platform. With that feedback in hand, we will publish a refined version of the text and begin a second phase that incorporates interactive digital content and further explores what a digital textbook is truly capable of.
Q: Are you aware of anyone teaching with the beta version? Have you had commitments from individuals or departments to use it during the next academic year?
A: Students are currently working with the text at a variety of institutions ranging from major state universities (such as the University of Georgia and the University of Florida) to various community colleges (such as Central New Mexico Community College and Bronx Community College) and everything in between (Rice University, Georgia State University, the University of Texas at Dallas and others). We don’t solicit formal commitments for use, but we’ve already heard from additional instructors and history departments hoping to adopt the text next fall. We are historians, not marketers, but we believe continued positive feedback and our formal launch in the fall will also encourage additional adoptions.
Q: In the culture wars, American history is one of the more harried battlegrounds. Did that factor into the textbook’s preparation in any way?
A: We believe history should be written by historians. We have no interest in the culture war, beyond mitigating the way that some have used it to wildly distort the past. Instead, we've trusted in our profession; our desire has been to reflect all the very best of contemporary scholarship.
On the other hand, we have been conscious about how to properly synthesize the American past. What gets included, and what doesn't? This is a difficult issue and we have enlisted the historical profession to help guide us. And we remain open to critical feedback.
Q: The talk page of a Wikipedia entry tends to become a forum for debate, informed and otherwise. Yawp is not in wiki format, of course, but will the comments component be moderated?
A: We've seen very little rancor in our Comment Press platform. Disagreements have mostly taken the form of highly specialized critiques. Historians are argumentative, but we've been pleased to see that all have followed the standards of professional decorum. We therefore haven't had any plans to moderate discussions. And, unlike a wiki, disruptive comments would not be able to filter into the text without editorial decisions.
Q: It seems as if The American Yawp could serve as a model for other textbooks. Is that the plan?
A: Our model is completely reproducible. We've accomplished this without institutions, grants or rarefied technological know-how. And we very much hope that others will follow our example. We already know, for example, that within our own profession there is quite a bit of interest for a similar project in world history.
Q: A commercially produced textbook can be financially rewarding for everybody involved in its creation, and it counts on an author's CV. These seem like powerful incentives for stasis. What would it take for your mode of textbook production to establish itself as viable over the long run?
A: Of course, a commercially produced textbook is not financially rewarding for everybody involved -- it is often quite financially punitive for our students. (The College Board, for instance, found that the typical student now spends $1,200 a year on textbooks and supplies.) And outside of a few textbooks written by a few academics for a few major presses, financial rewards can be extremely limited for textbook producers.
Still, the reputational economics of academia do matter. Professional consideration of projects such as this will certainly shift as academia continues to adjust to the digital age, but we also did not embark upon the project for economic or professional gain. This has been and will continue to be a labor of love. We entered the historical profession because we believe there is a moral imperative to study the American past and to share that knowledge with students and with the public. The rising costs of higher education makes that difficult. Academics recognize this, and we believe that's why over 300 academic historians were so willing to participate in this project.
We believe our model is viable in the long term. This is not a start-up having to satisfy investors or foundation boards. This is simply a collective of historians who have come together to share the knowledge of our profession. That doesn't mean certain developments couldn't further secure the long-term viability of projects such as this, of course. For instance, we have been looking into possible partnerships with innovative university presses to help satisfy the very reputational implications you cited.
Tyton Partners, the former Education Growth Advisors, this week released the first of three papers based on surveys it conducted on faculty and administrator attitudes about digital courseware. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded the surveys, which yielded 2,700 responses.
The first paper charts faculty attitudes. It found that while instructors are aware of digital courseware, which is widely used, many faculty members are "woefully dissatisfied" with existing offerings. This poses a challenge to the broader adoption of online courses, the report found, arguing that "changes must be made by both suppliers and institutions to support adoption of digital courseware at scale."
Teachers make a tremendous difference, both in the lives of our children and the competitiveness and success of our country.
That’s why it’s so essential to get more effective teachers into U.S. classrooms. Every thoughtful strategy for this moral and economic imperative ultimately comes back to colleges and universities doing a better job of preparing teacher candidates. Contrary to movies and folklore, successful teachers are not born. They are trained and taught.
Going as far back as the 1950s, critics have bemoaned that rigor and relevance get short shrift in teacher education. Teachers themselves frequently make this complaint. Many vividly and painfully recount how they spent the early years of their careers guessing about how to manage their classrooms, plan engaging lessons, assess student performance and reach students of all achievement levels simultaneously. “Why did I have to learn so much on the job?” they fairly ask of us.
With a reasonable amount of compelling evidence, the National Council on Teacher Quality recently pointed to this problem in "Easy A’s and What’s Behind Them." Looking at information from more than 500 institutions, NCTQ found that teacher candidates are graduating with honors almost 50 percent more often than all undergraduate students.
Clearly, the assertion is that teacher candidates are not being held to the same high standards expected of other academic programs and that course work in teacher-prep programs is not being graded and evaluated rigorously.
Where this is true, shame on us. We’re misleading people in consequential ways. If new graduates aren’t as prepared to succeed in the classroom, as their grades and honors suggest, then we have done a disservice to them, to their employers and, most important, to their students.
We know this complaint is real. We’ve all heard that too few of the teachers we train have the practical knowledge and deep grounding in their content areas to teach to 21st-century standards.
We must hear critics’ legitimate complaints. I have often said that we are not differentiating the achievements of our graduates with the precision and honesty that, for example, law schools and other professional schools do. That’s a failure we, as institutions of higher learning, have to confront, own and fix.
Many in the teacher education establishment will say "Easy A’s" is a cheap shot or that it looks at incomplete information. Others have asserted that the methods that NCTQ uses to evaluate teacher education programs are inappropriate, if not flawed. Though we have our criticisms of NCTQ’s work, the message, not the messenger, is what we care about.
The reality is that far too many institutions do fail to adequately define what constitutes research-driven preparation practices. Because of that lack of definition, many education graduates have a false sense of their preparedness. Their college credentials don’t translate to results in the classroom.
Imagine the shock of new teachers, and especially our most celebrated grads, if they go into the classroom and their students objectively and consistently perform poorly.
Just as K-12 schools are being asked to differentiate teachers based on value-added metrics, teacher education institutions need to differentiate teacher candidates during their academic and clinical preparation.
True, our goal is for all candidates to do well. But if we have demanding rubrics for effective practice, not all teacher candidates will be rated equally or even highly. Quite simply, whether through rubrics or a limit on A’s or some other performance differentiator, teacher education programs also need to do a much better job of assessing the performance of candidates.
We have been critics of NCTQ and will continue to be when we disagree. Its rhetoric is often too strident, its perspective too jaundiced about teacher education programs. But the organization and we agree on two essential points:
Teacher education programs are vital to ensuring teacher quality and creating the necessary pipeline of talent for our nation’s schools.
Improving teacher quality will only be accomplished with more rigorous teacher preparation.
Even well-meaning programs such as Teach for America could benefit from better grounding in university partnerships. Our schools need highly trained and skilled teachers who are effective the day they start their careers. If we really are committed to providing a world-class education system, we must have a comprehensive system for turning out the professionals to drive it.
The way to ensure teachers will be successful is to provide and demand more rigorous clinically based teacher education. In that system, there will be no easy A’s.
Nancy L. Zimpher is chancellor of the State University of New York and holds a Ph.D. in teacher education and higher education administration. Thomas J. Lasley II is executive director of the Learn to Earn Dayton program at the Dayton Foundation and a professor in the School of Education and Health Sciences at the University of Dayton.