The Skills-Education Disconnect

According to not only a study cited in The World 2013 [published by The Economist], but to an array of other sources, there’s a growing gulf between what employers need in the way of skills and what the schools are producing. And contrary to popular and political opinion, or the latest pop/political fix of STEM [science, technology, and mathematics] education emphasis, the greatest problem is that students don’t have an adequate grasp of problem-solving skills or other basic skills [like an adequate command and understanding of their own language]… yet 70% of the students believe they do, and something like 70% of employers believe they don’t.

Based on what my wife the college professor has observed in recent years, and on studies in the field, over 80% of the students cannot take information presented to them and use that information to solve problems or come up with the answer requiring very basic reasoning. And according to their SAT/ACT test scores, these are bright students. Furthermore, most of them cannot retain information that they have heard, or read, even when told that retention of that information will be necessary. They have a slightly higher retention rate when the information is presented in visual/video format, but not a significantly higher retention rate. Their attention span is generally less than ten minutes for any given subject.

The percentage of undergraduate students with these difficulties varies, generally with the selectivity of the college or university, but between 25% and 40% [depending on the methodology used] of all those who receive an undergraduate degree are effectively functionally unable to communicate or receive written/text communication effectively.

Is this a totally new phenomenon? Unhappily, it’s not. Older college professors can recall students with these problems dating back at least thirty years. The problem is that, back then, there were fewer of them, because the more rigid secondary schools basically pushed a significant number of them away from higher education, and of those who did enter college, far fewer of them got degrees and graduated, simply because they couldn’t recall enough information to pass difficult courses.

There are several aspects of the problem that tend to get ignored in this era of “I can look anything up.” First is the fact that in order to be able to look up relevant information, one has to have enough of a knowledge base to know what to look up. Second, one has to have the underlying skills to know what to do with that information. Having the fastest thumbs on the planet and the greatest screen/eye-to-hand coordination equates to incredibly fast reaction times, but doesn’t equate to problem-solving skills.

As I have noted in the past, more than once, basic problem-solving and language/communication skills MUST be learned young. By the time students are 18 or so, their brain patterns are set. Second, no matter what anyone wants to believe, not every student can or can be motivated to learn these skills. Effective teaching on the primary level in particular can maximize the number who can, but not all can learn such skills. The idea behind No Child Left Behind is a politically popular delusion that is destroying effective education. People have different basic intelligence levels, and while some of that innate intelligence can be enhanced or depressed by environmental and social factors, only a small percentage of the population will ever function at the highest – or lowest – levels.

Trying to craft an educational system that “prepares” all students in the same fashion is an exercise in frustration, ineffectiveness, and wastefulness. But there is also an immense accompanying socio-political problem, and that is that, particularly in the United States, people tend to respect only a handful of skills – those of professional athletes, those of popular entertainers, and those who are rich and famous. These three groups amount to less than 1/10 of one percent of the population, and the chances of success in any of these areas are incredibly slender. There is little real respect, for all the lip service paid, for teachers, police officers, and others who hold society together, because lip service pales alongside the financial negligence. The professors at my wife’s university, for example, and for that matter at all the state universities in our state, have been frozen something like six times out of the last 18 years, and the few cost-of-living allowances have been on the nature of 1% to 2%. The salary levels for beginning teachers in our area, and likely in other areas as well, are less than $1,000 a year above the poverty level for a family of four… and most young teachers here are married. Very few doctors can afford either to be general practitioners or to practice in rural areas or many inner city areas because what they can earn won’t cover the cost of their educational loans… and their malpractice insurance.

Yet, in many areas, good-paying positions are unfilled… because young people can’t be bothered to be electricians, plumbers, air-conditioning technicians, high-tech welders… the list is significant… and all too many of the “schools” that profess to teach such trades are inadequate, and charge far too much.

Do I have a simple answer? No… I don’t, and I don’t believe that there is one… and because there isn’t, and because no one really wants to tackle complex issues any more in a culture where information, such as it is, is only one mouse-click away, I worry that it will be some time before the situation changes.

6 thoughts on “The Skills-Education Disconnect”

  1. Thomas R. says:

    I think one of the basics is that our culture has taught young people instant gratification. They are not taught about responsibility for ones own actions, or that there is no such thing as free. Everything has a cost, but political and religous leaders do not teach that, or want to admit it , because it would lessen their personal influence. Even so called leaders, such as Romney, can only blame others for their own failures, because they will not accept responsibility for their actions. This in the long run is why Rome fell, you know! I see no way out!

  2. Ryan Jackson says:

    Part of the issue also lies in employers. A great many jobs and skill sets can actually be taught much more easily on the job and with hands on experience as opposed to a classroom.

    I’ve worked in the private sector investigating credit and financial fraud and criminal activity for the last six years. All of my experience comes from on the job learning, from working with others, both federally employed and in the industry. Every so often my company hires in some newer person with their Bachelors or Masters in Criminal Justic or a similar degree and their knowledge is woefully below where it needs to be. They know about as much as I did walking into the job blind. Which is to say general common sense aspects, but nothing of the details.

    I’ve seen this across the credit industry as well. From the more detailed jobs like mine to the simpler positions in Collections or Customer Service. Too many companies demand education for the sake of it looking shiny on the resume. Very few (in fact, in my experience maybe two or three) of the big banks are willing to hire and train the untrained or new and spend the effort to grow employee loyalty and skillset within their own doors.

    This is for a job that is traditionally a college level situation to begin with, I can’t imagine the situation is too different or much better in jobs that are considered more “tech” or vocational.

    No idea how to encourage it, but we need employers to start taking more effort to pick people based on the ability and the potential and and less on the superficial appearance of skill.

  3. Matthew Runyon says:

    One of the truly excellent things about my current company (in logistics/cargo movement) is that they actively prefer inexperienced people, so they can train them up according to the high standards of the company. I, for instance, have a degree in chemistry and no experience in anything relating to logistics. The company is also well known for not laying off employees, period. All of which makes people much more willing to work for somewhat lower than standard pay, especially early on when you start as an apprentice, essentially. And the apprenticeship model is one the company prefers, as my current position of apprentice supervisor shows, and various other official apprentice positions.

    This company is also making a hefty, hefty profit margin.

    Why so few do this I cannot understand.

  4. j says:

    As usual Mr. Modesitt’s remarks on the education system are spot on. I don’t think the average middle-aged or older person is aware of just how dysfunctional the education system has gotten in the past twenty years, so I will tell a few stories from personal experience. I taught at university for a number of years and my wife teaches in high school, and I’ve seen it from both ends.

    Once you calculate in the student loan payments, health care costs (not necessarily included in the listed salaries), and salary freezes (six years running in our district), younger teachers in most of the United States are not making any more than they would waiting tables or answering phones. They are under constant attack from parents, administrators, and students, because in a system that can’t admit the existence of naturally unequal abilities, any student failures must be the teachers’ fault. A teacher who shows opposition to this logic within earshot of administrators, students, parents or just another teacher who happens to dislike them is also putting their job at risk.

    Honors classes in our district are now filled on the basis of parent requests, not student ability. Remedial classes include not only the slow, but also the outright retarded students who used to have a class of their own, as well as capable students who are undisciplined or intentionally underperforming.

    Intentionally underperforming? Low or no income parents can actually get a big chunk of extra money from the government, in addition to whatever other welfare they are collecting, if they can claim that their child is mentally disabled. Yes, it’s true, parents will allow or even encourage their child to fall into remedial classes, and never to leave them, for this money, whether or not their child is disabled in any legitimate sense. Even the NY Times recently had an article about this problem.

    Imagine the following: you see a student from your remedial reading class buying junk food from a school vending machine with his food stamp card while talking on his iPhone. Last week he cussed you out in class, you gave him a detention which he didn’t attend. Today he’s serving an in-school suspension instead, where he sits in a little room and plays games on his iPhone all day instead of attending your, or anyone else’s, class. The kid has been classified as mentally disabled and so the government gives his mother an extra $700 a month plus food stamps in addition to whatever money she was already collecting just for having him, although as far as you can tell his only disability is that he has never known any discipline his entire life. He’s never met his father and his mother doesn’t work; instead she lives off welfare and makes at least as much as you do teaching full time. When you ask him what he wants to do with his life, he says he’s going to be a ‘hustler’ or else join the NFL, though he isn’t even on the football team. The principal tells you your job is at risk if you can’t bring up the test scores of this kid and a class full of kids like him by the end of the year. Only half of your students were engaged at your last observation, moreover, the last time the principal walked by your classroom he saw you sitting at your desk, which is a very bad thing to do. If you point out in response that your students are being paid to fail, that the parents do nothing and real discipline is nonexistent, you will be fired almost immediately.

    In this environment, a young adult today would be foolish to pursue a teaching career. Unless you’re lucky enough to land a well-paid job in one of those vanishing safe, upper middle class suburbs, you won’t be paid, and you won’t be respected. The much-vaunted long vacations are mostly an illusion, taken up by grading, preparation, mandatory further education classes, and wasteful ‘professional development’ days.

    By the way, I am not making this stuff up. This is the reality at the lower end of schools–a quarter, a third, maybe half the country, who knows. And if you think this comment is long, you should hear my wife talk about it.

  5. Tim says:

    I am sad to say that the UK has similar issues. I remember a family being quite pleased how they had ‘statemented’ their eldest daughter. This meant increased allowances provided by the state. This girl was in my opinion needing encouragement but seemed quite able otherwise. I am not a teacher and so have no experience in reduced-ability children, but I was appalled at the parents’ attitude.

  6. Carl says:

    But it’s the teachers and professors that taught us that there are no differences in natural ability. If the teachers actually taught us the truth in the first place, they wouldn’t be having this problem.

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