What Skills Gap?

There’s a strange pattern to popular handwringing about the skills gap. Whether one reviews pre-Great Recession headlines from 2008, when unemployment hovered around 4.5%, or those printed at the height of joblessness in 2010, the refrain is the same: workers’ lack of proper skills left them in the lurch. Today, big business sings the same song, calling on workers to “skill up!” before the robots overtake them.

Thankfully, John Alic’s scholarship has keenly kept track of this pattern, rigorously linking it to something more structural. There’s no empirical evidence that “skill”—distinct from social status and the economic means to access higher education—works as a silver bullet. That means that it’s too simple to pin low wages and lack of advancement on individual workers making bad educational choices. Alic’s early work was some of the first scholarship to trace the disconnect between skill attainment and the United States’ transition from a stable manufacturing economy to the staccato pace of service-driven economies. It illustrated that specific skills don’t lead to economic security. Sound economic policies written with workers’ best interests and rights to organize in mind do. Today, three-quarters of the nation’s workforce is employed in low-paying, dead-end service jobs, not because workers took the wrong classes at school but because labor laws do nothing to push businesses to fully value everyday workers’ economic contributions. In other words, as Alic presciently noted nearly two decades ago, if service work leads to low pay and little advancement for workers, it’s an absence of policy interventions that hold businesses accountable, not an individual skill mismatch, to blame.

Alic’s “What We Mean When We Talk about Workforce Skills” (Issues, Spring 2018) could not be timelier, as the conversation around automation and the future of work heats up for the 2018 mid-term elections. It is not uncommon for technologists, policy-makers, and economists across the political spectrum to trot out the old saw that workers’ lack of high-tech skills is the reason US wages and prosperity have stalled. Alic offers a sweeping and compelling argument challenging such unexamined conventional wisdom. As he argues, skills “overlap, combine, and melt together invisibly, defying measurement,” making explicit adjustment to them an ineffective lever for economic change. But, importantly, the attention on skills education “deflects attention from broader and deeper institutional problems in the labor market.” For Alic, placing debt and speculation about the “right skills” on the shoulders of young people (or parents helping them with schooling) harms individuals and businesses alike. Human capital, as Alic poignantly puts it, is “a national resource.” As Alic argues, one of the most important shifts we must make is recognizing this fact. This is the logical conclusion when one takes in Alic’s case for the immeasurability and unpredictable nature and value of skill as society-at-large stands at the precipice of the future of work.

Senior Researcher, Microsoft Research
Professor, School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering, Indiana University
Fellow, Harvard University Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society

Cite this Article

“What Skills Gap?” Issues in Science and Technology 34, no. 4 (Summer 2018).

Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, Summer 2018