Skills Gap is Widened by Lack of Awareness, Want-To

Crain’s Cleveland Business

Posted January 3, 2020 by Mark Perna

Mark wrote a “Personal View” op-ed regarding the Awareness Gap behind our skills gap, published in print and online October 29, 2018.

The skills gap: it’s staring us in the face.

In Ohio by 2020, 65 percent of jobs that pay a viable living wage will require college degrees or training certificates, but only 54 percent of adults in Northeast Ohio are qualified. Looking at the problem nationally, by 2025 the United States will be short 11 million certificate holders and degree holders to support the economy, according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. ADP and Moody’s Analytics reports that the gap won’t close itself any time soon.

This disparity between what the skills employers need in their workforce and the skills that workers actually possess spans many different industries, including advanced manufacturing, healthcare, construction, aviation, and other fields. We’re all asking the same pressing question: why? Why do we have this enormous gap between what employers need and what workers can deliver?

It’s a multifaceted question, but I would argue that one part of the answer is what I call the “Awareness Gap.” This is the chasm between what people think they know about a particular career or industry and what the actual reality is. In general, most people today simply are not aware of the many rewarding career pathways and opportunities in these high-demand industries. Maybe it’s because of the stigmas of the past. Maybe it’s because we’ve gutted technical skill programs in our educational system so we can push everyone to go to college. Maybe we just think today’s young people know more than they know (and if they don’t, whose fault is that? Not theirs).

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To bridge the Awareness Gap, we have to start meaningful career exploration at a younger age in our educational system— career exploration that encompasses and extols all viable career pathways, not just the ones that require a college degree. College can be a great option for many students, but it’s not the only route to a rewarding and sustainable career.

Today’s young people have what it takes to step up and address Ohio’s skills gap. We just have to empower them to do it.

The “Why Generation”

The Y and Z generations—who will inherit our skills gap—have been negatively stereotyped as lazy, entitled, and unmotivated. This doesn’t bode well for employers looking to find, train, and retain the best young talent out there. Fortunately, the stereotypes don’t have to be true.

As a performance consultant for workforce development, I’ve started calling generations Y and Z “the Why Generation.” They’re always asking the reason behind everything. This questioning isn’t a challenge to authority; rather, it’s because knowing why validates their work. They want to belong and contribute to something larger than themselves, and when they catch that vision, they deliver their fullest effort. They’ve been reared to believe in what they can contribute, and they want to put their own stamp on the work. But when that desire for information is stymied, when we answer, in effect, “because I said so,” when they ask why, they don’t see the point of putting in all this effort. We’ve failed to answer their why.

After more than 20 years in this field, I have found that the stereotypes are only true when we make them a self-fulfilling prophecy. Young people have amazing potential; we just have to unleash it. When we can show them something they really want, they will find the motivation and drive to achieve it. I call this the want-to, how-to concept: if the want-to is strong enough, the how-to will come.

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We’ve all seen this dynamic in action in our own lives. If we want something badly enough, we find a way to make it happen. The Why Generation is no different. Our challenge is getting them to want something so much that they will overcome obstacles, put forth the effort, and reach the career destination that can give them what they’re looking for.

Employers need to understand the want-to, how-to concept in order to make the most of their relationships with the younger generations in their workforce.

The Awareness Gap and the want-to, how-to concept are not just abstract ideas. They have been perfectly illustrated in my own home with my son Nick. He’s extremely intelligent but constantly struggled in school because he never understood the relevance of academics. In his mind, there was no compelling dream to work toward and so it just didn’t matter. He didn’t know of any careers he would love (his Awareness Gap), and he was thus completely unmotivated to do the work to succeed.

That all changed the minute he toured a computer programming career program and discovered what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

In Nick’s case, the change was overnight. His dream career required a college degree, and suddenly he realized he needed to boost his uninspiring 1.5 GPA. Amazingly, he turned his lackluster performance around and was able to reach his goal. He wanted his dream enough to find how to make it happen: the want-to, how-to concept in action. Today, he’s working in his field and loves what he does. There are always new goals and achievements on his horizon.

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Northeast Ohio needs more stories like Nick’s, and we can take steps to help that happen. First we have to make students and their parents aware of the multitude of postsecondary training pathways that lead to rewarding careers (realizing we may have to bridge our own Awareness Gaps first). Then, we have to show them why pursuing these pathways is worth the work—creating the want-to. Once the want-to takes over, the how-to will take care of itself. Achieving these objectives will require unprecedented connections between business and industry and our educational system to promote robust career exploration.

In Ohio, the careers are available and so are the people; we just have to connect them. And it starts with bridging the Awareness Gap.

Read at Crains Cleveland

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Press, Workforce Development

About The Author
Mark Perna
Mark C. Perna is an international speaker and bestselling author. He also serves as CEO of TFS Results, a strategic consulting firm at the forefront of the national paradigm shift in education and workforce development.
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