The Skills Gap Crisis In America Has Got Adults Scrambling To Catch Up

[This article originally appeared in The Ascent.]

We all want to succeed in school, work, and life.

Some of us will do anything for it — even go into massive debt. (I’m in my forties and still paying on my student loans!) In this age, going to college no longer guarantees employment and that is a huge problem.

We all know the woes of the millennials: over-educated and under-employed. That figure of $1.3 trillion in college loan debt for Americans grows every day with no sign of stopping.

People are still choosing to enroll in our “old economy” education system despite the fact that it doesn’t line up with the demands of the “new economy”.

What am I talking about?

The old economy would accept a four-year degree in anything. You simply learn on the job. People just don’t get jobs in what they majored in because it’s too broad.

The new economy is different. It often privileges skills and experience over a broad college degree. In many industries today, companies often don’t even care about degrees. I’m not just talking about technical fields like computer science or graphic design. This preference extends to marketing, management, and entrepreneurship too.

Does it matter that you don’t have a college degree, but you can rank a website to #1 in a few weeks? Not really. How about succeeding at one of the most important and common jobs in any company, a salesperson? Is there really a class for that in college? Not really. Formal education has its limits and practical value.

Traditional fields like medicine, law, accounting, etc will still require college degrees. Common trades will still require certified training. However, the way we get skills, experience, and knowledge in the future is drastically changing before our eyes. And when you look at all the hiring frustrations today, it’s clear that we have a skills gap crisis.

I can remember applying for a retail management job after graduating college. I was trying to make ends meet during the search for my big career. I had a master’s degree and plenty of retail experience. I was also great at sales.

In a couple weeks, I got an email that basically said: “We’re just not what we’re looking for. Good luck!” I’m guessing that email was sent out to over a hundred people from some autoresponder. Despite the unemotional and detached nature of this communication, I felt emotional. I was hurt, disappointed, and angry.

“Are you kidding me?!” I thought to my self. “I have a freakin’ master’s degree and experience. I’m way over-qualified for this and I still can’t get an interview.”

I felt like a loser.

But I imagine a lot of people felt the same way. In an employer’s market, they have all the power. They can hire the best and they won’t even have to pay a premium. If that means hiring someone who has ten years doing exactly what the last person did plus a few more skills, they can have them.

It’s skills and experience people want at any level of a company. If you have a college degree, in some cases that’s just a bonus because it’s results that people want. People pay for results. And those results are acquired by having the exact skill stack employers need. Few fresh college grads have that.

Those who think college alone is still the answer to getting a better job are stuck in the old economy and they might find themselves underemployed in the future too.

We’ve known this for a while now. But what has been done about it? Why are people still following the traditional path to success that clearly doesn’t work for this generation?

Someone once asked me a thought-provoking question about the state of education today:

What would an ideal school (formal or informal) teach beyond the basic requirements?

This made me think long and hard. I was drawn back to both my teaching days and corporate days. I thought about all my startup advising. Then I thought about the countless times I consulted a client that clearly had an impressive liberal arts education, and yet they struggled to make ends meet.

Here’s my official top 13 list of vital things they don’t teach in most schools but should:

13. PUBLIC SPEAKING — I’ve been a business coach for a long time and the #1 skill people ask me about is this: How can I learn to speak in front of others better?My answer? In a word, practice. Unfortunately we don’t get enough of this in high school and college. Whether it’s in a small group or an auditorium, command of an audience is one of the most important skills you can have. The ability to inform and inspire people are traits of a true leader.

12. SALES — I’m not one of those business types that thinks that everything in life is a sale. But I know sales and persuasion is an invaluable and practical skill. You will sell your vision, ideas, products, and self. About the latter, selling yourself on your own aptitude and potential is one of the most crucial skills for self-esteem. We absolutely must get comfortable with sales for ourselves and our work. Anyone working with startups will tell you that money solves practically everything: that only comes from sales.

11. PERSONAL BRANDING — Your reputation, message, and identity is all captured in your personal branding. The greater control you have over it, the better. Who knew that social media would be a thing? Now, it’s one of the biggest mediums by which others judge you by as it becomes increasingly more important.

10. ADVANCED TIME MANAGEMENT — One thing that puzzles me with new college graduates is their concept of time. I’m not just talking about being on time (that’s a whole new conversation). Many have to be tutored in how to be the most productive with their own time and how to manage projects better. There is a yin and yang of efficiency and effectiveness that must be mastered. Maybe the concept of time management in school is too meta, but it’s crucial in the workforce.

9. ADVANCED SOFT SKILLS — Being good with people is one thing. But being great with people is essential if you want to advance in most jobs. This can be as subtle as writing the perfect email or tactically managing subordinates. It captures how to deal with outsiders as well as insiders. It’s odd, but some of the biggest decisions ever made come back to how well someone’s soft skills were.

8LEADERSHIP — I’ve taught courses in leadership for adults and kids. I’m of the opinion that it can’t be taught, per se. Some people just have it in them and others make far better followers. However, if there is one thing that I think is the answer to the future of the American economy, it’s proper leadership.

Many jobs in the future will be done by machines. Also, skilled workers can always be insourced or outsourced — they’re in abundance today. What’s scarce and vital are those who lead organizations. I want America to be known as a nation of great leaders and stakeholders, not a nation of replaceable outsourcers. I hope I’m wrong and leadership can be taught. If so, students can practice how to build a network or tribe and lead them.

7. PERSONAL FINANCE — We all know that most people suck at personal finance. We don’t save much, we don’t invest until it’s almost too late, and we find it hard to stick to budgets. In many countries, credit cards and other forms of debt ruin people’s lives. We can blame effective marketing and dodgy legislation, but it’s really personal finance education that is lacking. Soon in America, we’ll probably make this course required. However, the fact that it isn’t already is tragic.

6. STORYTELLING — Educators are obsessed with pure literary analysis. There’s a lot of reflective writing and talking about literature, but few exercises where they have to create stories. It’s easy to play the critic. Who I truly admired is the artist, the bard, the scribe. At best they create literary magic that connects to the masses, and at worst they attempt to communicate creatively.

When we grow up, we realize that story goes beyond school and the entertainment industry. In medicine, we investigate patient narratives and histories. In business there are customer personas and brand stories.

Digital marketing is really about storytelling. Look at social media. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter all privilege a function they call stories. (I have a pet theory that people who are bad at social media are bad at telling stories.) In the boardroom, our boring data must tell a story. Even scientists will tell you that story is just how our mind works, so it must be emphasized in practical ways.

5. VALUE CREATION — With the exception of grades, schools emphasize intrinsic value. We hear things like “You should learn this because it makes you smarter and a better person”. However, employers often judge you for your extrinsic value. What can you make that we need? Seriously, that’s the problem with 80% of the resumes I come across.

The hard truth millennials are facing these days is that they are “knowledge generalists” competing in a “skills specialist” economy.

Graduates are not even close to having the T-shaped skill set that’s required to be marketable. They have very little commercial value because most liberal arts colleges stress theory over application. We have to teach young people how to create value that is both intrinsically and extrinsically valuable, even if it is on an amateur level.

4. CRITICAL THINKING — Critical thinking is often taught in context as a part of a lesson or unit. And I don’t think it’s taught very well. I remember reading so-called model essays (“college-level” IB and AP assignments). Rhetorically, some were almost brilliant. But as an adjunct, I can tell you that most of them would not pass at the college level. On the surface they seemed fine, but close up you can see that the logic was riddled with enough holes to sink a ship. Many of them just didn’t make sense.

Worse yet, in the book Academically Adrift, the author points out that 45% of college students don’t show improvement in their critical thinking skills since high school. This should be a shocker given the college price tag and implications of being college-educated.

Surely, a stand-alone critical thinking course would be useful for students. It could cover logical fallacies and a small selection from the 160+ cognitive biases. Moreover, it could cover how the rigorous scientific method is applied to real life situations. To match employer needs, data analysis and systems thinking can be introduced.

But forget silly college essays or making sense on paper for a moment. I’d want students to learn this so in life they won’t get ripped off or vote the wrong people into office!

3. CREATIVE THINKING — Most problems can be solved with critical thinking. When the problems become challenging or nearly impossible, that’s where creative thinking has real value. Unfortunately, this skill is highly under-rated in schools as the most-viewed TED Talk in history points out. And yet to solve the problems of the future, creative problem-solving is essential.

There are problems that we know we’ll have in the future that we still don’t understand. Look at the world economy for instance. It can’t be fixed with a few new laws and policies. It’s going to take an entire analytical and creative overhaul to get us back on track. And because of our cookie-cutter school system, creative thinking is needed for an individual to find their place in this world and to stick out.

2. FAILING — Startups know that failure is essential. It’s how ideas and companies evolve. But in general, failing must be encouraged. Failing inspires us to create challenges and opportunities to learn more about ourselves and the world. And failing isn’t just a mindset. It’s a skill where you constantly execute, evaluate, and recalibrate.

Most schools don’t encourage projects where the failure rate is high. Instead, we teach kids that getting good grades is the highest virtue. This is the safe route. However, failure is a part of learning. And if you’re not failing once in a while, your goals and standards are probably mediocre. We must learn to take bigger risks, even if we fail.

1. SELF-MASTERY — The most important aspect of all is how you learn and how that’s applied to everything you do. It all starts with knowing yourself. To provide the best value and unique value, you have to know who you are. This encompasses more than how you learn. It digs deep into your true north: your values, beliefs, skills, and passions.

When people come to me because they’re stuck in their career or startup, I always ask them the true north questions. Shortly after, they have greater clarity and direction on what they should do next. They rediscover the best parts of their selves and why they do things.

Life is a struggle, but it isn’t always meant to be so. Hopefully some parts are filled with joy and fulfillment. Knowing yourself and mastering your capabilities brings the greatest value to yourself and others.

Next Steps

There you have it, 13 vital skills that have now become part of our adult finishing school curriculum. Which skills would help you get to the next level?

Improve Your Skills With Coaching

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[This story is published in The Ascent, one of Medium’s top publications for self-improvement and business.]

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Hi, I'm Peyton. I help people and businesses accelerate their success through story. I'm based in Portland, Oregon — a magical and mysterious city enveloped by a Douglas Fir rainforest.
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