Preparing students for success in the 21st century economy: Challenges with aligning educational policy and curricula with employer expectations

WCER Working Paper No. 2013-08

Matthew T. Hora

December 2013, 19 pp.

ABSTRACT: Wisconsin and the nation are struggling with how to address persistent unemployment and an economy recovering too slowly from the Great Recession of 2008. While economists point to a host of reasons for sluggish growth, including low aggregate demand, outsourcing, spending cuts, and so on, some argue a principal culprit is the "skills gap." Based in part on this interpretation of the causes of slow economic growth, the policy response at national and state levels is increasingly focusing on the educational sector as a way to cultivate more skilled workers. Yet important questions about the nature of employer expectations and the subsequent implications for the nature of educational programming and curricula remain unanswered. In particular, notwithstanding the ongoing debate about whether a skills gap exists at all, empirical evidence does not support the assumption that employers' primary need is technical training of potential workers. In this working paper I analyze Wisconsin's education and workforce development policies in light of the research literature on the topic, along with data from a survey of 181 Wisconsin-based employers who were asked about the types of skills they found lacking among job applicants in manufacturing. The results indicate that employers are seeking new hires in a variety of job categories such as skilled labor, engineers, and welders, each of which have distinct requirements for training and skill sets. Employers report that work ethic is the most important skill or applicant attribute lacking in the labor market, followed by technical skills, math skills, and social skills. These results highlight the fact that employers seek such a variety of skill types that a sole focus on technical or vocational training will not provide students with the types of skills that will make them competitive in the job market. The evidence also suggests that the effects of current policies that tend to remain silent on non-technical skill development could be enhanced by adopting a more comprehensive notion of skills, as well as creating programs and curricula that cultivate these multi-faceted skills in 2- and 4-year college and university classrooms.

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keywords: labor, education, workforce development, skills gap, manufacturing, Wisconsin, policy