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Degrees v. Training to Close the Skills Gap: A Fight to the Death?

Degrees v. training: Fight to the death?Unlike in the wildly popular Hunger Games trilogy, where contestants are pitted against each other in a fight to the death and there can only be one victor while the rest perish, I think when it comes to closing the skills gap there’s room for more than just one approach.

The arguments squarely for or against formal education (i.e., degrees) versus training or credentialing as a means to close the skills gap are constantly bandied about, but I don’t necessarily think it’s a matter of one versus the other across the board.

Over the past two months, I was fortunate to attend the HR Technology Conference and Expo 2013 in Las Vegas as well as The Close It Summit 2013 in Washington, D.C., where thought leaders and executives from various realms of business and education discussed ways to close the current skills gap.

After skimming through my endless pages of notes, I settled on these four overarching highlights that stood out in my mind. Take a look and tell me what you agree with, what you don’t and where on the spectrum you fall.

Credentialing and skill building is gaining steam. “Today’s war for talent is about focusing on scarce competences and critical roles,” HR thought leader Naomi Bloom said at HR Tech. That’s why, according to her, skill building and credentialing will exceed popularity of people getting degrees. Employers today are more reluctant to spend a lot of money to get employees degrees, because times have changed and people don’t spend their entire career at one company anymore.

Focus on education AND skills. “Education is very important, but employers need to hire not only on degrees but also on skills,” according to Jamai Blivin, CEO and founder of Innovate+Educate, a non-profit focused on advancing changes in education and the workforce. At The Close It Summit, she went on to describe the disconnect or mismatch between candidates who have degrees and the skills that employers are looking for. “There are candidates who look good on paper who do not have the skills to do the job,” Blivin said.

Have you picked up your copy of The Talent Equation yet? It’s an invaluable resource that uses big data to help close the skills gap – and would make a great holiday gift for that special someone on your list (i.e., your boss).

Education should teach people HOW to think. In the past, knowledge may have been king, but today it’s all available on the Internet — people need to know what to do with the knowledge they have. That’s a simple but profound statement made at The Close It Summit.

One panelist demonstrated this with an example about how as part of her research, most people with graduate degrees failed a relatively simple math test, leading to the argument: It’s not how much math you know, but can you actually use it in the real world?

“Today we don’t need to teach students what to think but how to think,” said Patricia Buhler, a professor of management at Goldey-Beacom College. Buhler said degrees do matter, but they must arm students with skills deemed by businesses as essential. That’s education’s role in closing the skills gap – to graduate career-ready people who can meet today and tomorrow’s business needs.

Community colleges can play a more strategic role. It was interesting to hear a lot of chatter at The Close It Summit about the role of community colleges in the greater education debate. Perhaps not given as much attention as it has deserved in the past, there was much talk about the inherent information gap (not just the skills gap).

In other words, where are the jobs? What skills are required to perform these jobs? How can we resolve the misalignment between what employers want and what education offers? How can employers create a supply chain with community colleges to fill this gap? As one panelist put it, “Community colleges need to do the work to figure out what employers need.” And that’s not a one-way street.

What are YOU doing to close the skills gap? (Not ignoring it, we hope.) Are you investing more heavily in formal education or training — and if so, why is it right for you? Leave a comment below or drop us a tweet or Facebook post. And may the odds be ever in your favor.

Deanna Hartley

About Deanna Hartley

Deanna Hartley is a senior copywriter and community manager on the creative services team at CareerBuilder, where she writes about issues that are top of mind for employers and recruiters – including talent acquisition, employee engagement and retention. An avid social media user, Deanna is the face behind @CBforEmployers on Twitter as well as CBforEmployers’ Facebook and Instagram pages, so it’s easy to stay connected with her. Prior to joining CareerBuilder, Deanna was a senior editor for the Human Capital Media Group, publishers of Talent Management, Chief Learning Officer, Diversity Executive and Workforce Management magazines. Deanna holds a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. She loves caffeine, social media, pop culture and dogs – though not necessarily in that order.

Faith and Marija - thanks for your comments; it's great to see a constructive conversation going on here. Regardless of the ratio, I think one thing we can all agree on is that all three - formal education, informal learning and social learning - are valuable to learning & development, and integral to closing the skills gap.

Faith Ivery
Faith Ivery

I'm not so sure I agree with the 70/20/10 model - just ask someone who wanted and promotion and had great experience and social learning - but lacked the credentials (academic education; formal education; degrees) to even apply for the job.  I think formal learning still has it place and holds its value - it must be combined with other forms of experience - but I don't think it should be so low at only 10% value - the market indicates otherwise.  Just check with Compensation staff in corporations.

Marija HR
Marija HR

Agree on your conclusions following HR Tech conference. Knowledge is king but not in form of lots of data memorized and reproduced.

A combination of education, experience and training results in success. The 70:20:10 model relates to three forms of organizational learning according to their proportion in achieving competencies: Informal learning by experience and practice (70%), social experiences (20%) and formal learning (10%). 

Let's not  forget peer learning, when employees can share best practices, challenge each other to close the knowledge gaps. It can be in form of social learning that feels like a game and one of the platform that works well for this purpose is Wheeldo.

Faith Ivery
Faith Ivery

We hear much talk about Employee Engagement - or getting employees to stay.  We also know that there are two ways to obtain Talent: buy it, or grow it.  Employer Tuition Assistance Plans (TAP) can have a positive influence on both factors - yet, they are underutilized, little cost-reduction techniques, boilerplate policies and no consideration for employee Proper Provider Selection.  Instead of only focusing on the process/transaction tracking, management should be on the use of graduates, keeping both theory and skills updated, cost-reductions that work, and resources to assure employees are choosing providers that will make a difference to the company.  Higher education was never the end-all to get a job - well, at least since the 1950's.  It takes both a quality education and successful experience in the field to land a job and move forward.  Here is a quote:  CFO asks "what if we pay for employee education and they leave", CEO asks "what if we don't, and they stay".


@Faith Ivery Hi Faith - nice to hear from you and thanks for sharing your insights! I have also heard that last quote you mentioned with the CEO/CFO - powerful stuff. What I walked away with is that degrees and training needn't be mutually exclusive, but each or both must be leveraged where appropriate.


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