Work of the Future: Addressing Skills Gap with Education, Training, Expanded Pool 

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Community Colleges working with high schools are seen by the MIT Future of Work study group as critical to the ability to close the skills gap between qualified workers and job opportunities. (Credit: Getty Images) 

By John P. Desmond, AI Trends Editor   

Thousands of jobs go unfulfilled today because of the gap in skills between requirements of the job and available labor, according to speakers at a session on education and training at the AI and the Work of the Future Congress 2020 held virtually recently.  

The conference was held following the release of the 2020 report from the MIT Task Force on the Future of Work, which recently released its 2020 Final Report. 

Freeman Hrabowski, President, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

“The only way to fill these jobs is with certificate graduates,” stated Freeman Hrabowski, President, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, which has been working with the Greater Washington Partnership non-profit civic alliance of 27 employers to help address the issue. ”We have been looking at ways to develop certificates to increase the number of people to file these jobs,” he said. 

The Future of Work report refers to the nation’s 1,100 community colleges as the “linchpin of America’s training ecosystem,” providing training to seven million students annually in credit courses, with 46% of them over the age of 22. 

“It’s about a journey the worker is on to continue to invest in their education, and community colleges are the starting points,” stated Juan Salgado, Chancellor, City Colleges of Chicago.  

Juan Salgado, Chancellor, City Colleges of Chicago

One of the seven schools in his network that is focused on healthcare, saw enrollment increase five percent during the pandemic, while the others averaged a 14% decrease. “People are moving to where there is opportunity and into programs that work,” he said.   

Pandemic Has Led to Requirement to “Reallocate” Labor 

Paul Osterman, Professor of Human Resources and Management, MIT Sloan School of Management, said, “The core challenge is about low-wage workers. Some 25% of workers today earn less than is needed to support a family. And the Covid-19 pandemic has presented a “huge question around reallocation” of workers from industries that have shrunk, such as restaurants, to industries that need workers, such as healthcare. 

Over 55% of workers got skills training from their employers, based on a January 2020 survey Osterman conducted. He cited “huge disparities” by ethnic background, with African-Americans and Latinos receiving much less skills training from their employers than white people.  

“In the public system, we know what works,” Osterman said. “We know that community college pays off, and high quality job training also pays off. The issue is how to expand and scale what we know works, and getting employers to buy into it,” he said.  

He sees the answer as getting education “stovepipes” to work together, such as K-12 educators working with higher educators. “We need to get those bureaucracies to cooperate and create a seamless system, and get employers to take it seriously,” Osterman said. He often hears business CEOs saying they want to work with community colleges, but, “Making it happen is the challenge.”     

Community Colleges Working with K-12 Educators in Chicago  

Salgado of City Colleges of Chicago said he has engaged in a joint strategic plan with the Chicago public schools, which gets the K-12 systems and the community colleges working together. “We are going to be one team,” he said. Community college certification programs are introduced to high school students, so they become familiar with those options.   

In Baltimore County, community colleges are working closely with public educators and employers. “Those middle school years when students build their math and reading skills, and a sense of self-worth, are critical,” said. He noted that while many students, not only many from low-income backgrounds, are “afraid of math and science” many opportunities are also available to them.   

While many students in the Chicago and Baltimore areas may be benefiting from the K-12 and community college education partnerships, Osterman said, “I would suspect that thousands of people who need the kinds of skills that are in demand now are not getting that opportunity. We need to change that. It’s a political issue that needs to be front and center.” 

Startup pyrometics Seeks to Expand Hiring Pools by Assessing Soft Skills 

Dr. Frida Polli, CEO and founder, pymetrics

Another way to approach the skills gap is to expand the pool of potential hires. This is the approach taken by pymetrics, a startup focused on spotting talent with the right “adjacent skills” though they may be non-degree holders, minorities and women. CEO and founder Dr. Frida Polli, also a member of the Future of Work panel on education and training, is a neuroscientist aimed at ‘democratizing’ career search and hiring. The firm’s product seeks to match candidates to the best job while removing render and ethnic bias from the hiring process. The company has over 100 enterprise clients, including Unilever and Accenture.   

“We need to refocus on soft skills to understand future potential, to see whether a person has the social and emotional aptitude for work they have never done,” Dr. Polli said. “That allows us to mitigate the process we have for evaluating hard skills, which map to race, general and socioeconomic background. We want to at a minimum marry our love of hard skills with a soft skill assessment.” 

While difficult to quantify, her company has developed a means to do it. “We have developed more objective ways to measure these soft skills,” she said. “But whatever system you use, it will help to balance some inequalities we see in society.” 

Her own experience as an English major who became a scientist is telling. “Soft skill assessment is one of the ways you can compare an MIT grad with someone who has many of the same soft skills,” she said, adding, “The notion that to expand diversity, quality must suffer, is offensive.” 

A consortium of partners including pymetrics, Infosys, Merit America, Per Scholas, Revature and Woz U is working together to expand the hiring pool.  

Learn more from the MIT Task Force on the Future of Work 2020 Final Report, at the Greater Washington Partnership and from  pymetrics,