Nassau Community College
AAUP Advocacy Chapter
October 26, 2015
“In fact, the evidence appears to be compelling that the US is experiencing exactly the opposite problem, [rather than a skills gap] a substantial skill mismatch in the form of individuals with more education than their current jobs require and a surplus of educated and skilled workers who cannot find jobs at all, let alone jobs appropriate for their education and skill level.” (Peter Cappelli, George W. Taylor Professor of Management, Wharton School of Business).
After lying dormant for nearly two decades, the term “skills gap,” re-entered the national conversation following the Great Recession of 2008. America was last haunted by a version of this term in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Then as now workers and educators, not businesses or politicians, were blamed for a “skills mismatch” that left jobs unfilled, put the economy in jeopardy, and threatened America’s ability to compete internationally. Then as now corporations and the policy-makers who, like stenographers, write corporate-friendly legislation, partnered to invent a skills-gap “crisis.” Exploiting the chaos and fear caused by the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the authors of the latest iteration of a “skills gap” myth saw a wonderful opportunity to keep wages artificially low and transfer the costs of job training to taxpayers, while deflecting attention away from several glaring issues: enormous disparities between CEO pay and worker salaries, decades of flat or declining wages, historic corporate profits and savings, and the kind of inequality American has not seen since the Gilded Age.
The skills gap myth has been gladly taken in hand by a cynical media industry always thrilled to broadcast a “crisis” to get market share and page views. Meanwhile politicians in both parties (including a gullible President Obama!) and education “reform” leaders have ever so earnestly taken up the hue and cry of crisis and impending doom. The sheer volume and persistence of the skills gap myth have made it a self-evident “fact,” something so obvious that only a naïve and idealistic fool would ignore this hard-headed “truth.” However, several facts expose the lie in the myth: 1. Rational, highly skilled individuals will avoid underpaid manufacturing (or any) work that might get outsourced anyway. 2. In many states, the demand for skilled labor does not exceed the supply of highly educated workers. 3. If there were a true skills gap creating unfilled jobs, wages would rise. This has not happened. 4. In the manufacturing sector, a skills gap would lead logically to longer work weeks as existing employees pick up the slack. This also has not happened. 5. Thousands of workers are overqualified for the jobs they have been able to secure—the millennial generation is seeing their standard of living decline below that of their parents and grandparents.
When an empty farce like the skills gap myth takes on the empirical force of established fact, it breeds bad policy. Look at Wisconsin. Governor Scott Walker is putting in place measures that will severely weaken and destroy the reputation of one of the great University systems in the country. A sane economist writes: “The myth of the skills gap simply deflects our attention away from the true economic challenges we face. And to the extent that we restructure the [University of Wisconsin system] to respond to a fake skills gap—by doing such things as creating a ‘six month BA degree’….or by aligning courses with supposed ‘growth’ sectors of the economy—we risk compromising the very integrity of the university and economic future of the state.” How is this different from what is happening in New York State, to SUNY, and to Nassau Community College? Will our students soon be spending their scarce dollars paying for their own job training? The real skills gap is the critical thinking skills gap that allowed this myth to propagate and persist in the first place.
Tim Strode, PhD
NCC AAUP, Executive Committee