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Hora helps Chronicle of Higher Education examine ‘skills gap’ conundrum

January 27, 2017

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently posted an in-depth report examining the so-called skills gap headlined, “The Idea That Launched a Thousand Strategic Plans.” 

Among the experts The Chronicle turns to in an effort to put this nuanced topic in perspective is UW-Madison’s Matthew Hora, a researcher with the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, which is housed within the School of Education. Hora is also an assistant professor of adult teaching and learning with the Department of Liberal Arts and Applied Studies.

The Chronicle report begins: “A single idea has come to shape colleges’ plans for the future and assumptions about their role and purpose. It’s called the skills gap. Simply put, the skills gap is when industries have jobs to fill but can’t find workers with the skills needed to fill them. For colleges, the implication is that this gap is their fault, that they aren’t teaching the right things, and that they aren’t being responsive to businesses’ needs.”

The report continues: “Though the idea may hold intuitive appeal, its very existence has been questioned, and it has been plagued by fuzzy definitions. It’s not always clear which skills, specifically, are lacking. … This vagueness allows colleges to cite the skills gap as a reason to propose just about any remedy, as a quick tour of their strategic plans indicates. If global learning was once ubiquitous in colleges’ mission statements, solving the skills gap is now.”

Indeed, this is a complex and nuanced topic.

The Chronicle notes how Hora and his colleagues spoke with both educators and employers about the skills gap for their recent book, “Beyond the Skills Gap: Preparing College Students for Life and Work.”

The Chronicle notes: “Mr. Hora and his colleagues interviewed educators in Wisconsin’s universities and technical colleges, as well as chief executives, human-resources directors, and shift supervisors in biotechnology and manufacturing companies. The professors and instructors described a shared vision of educating their students for the long term even as they felt pressures to train them for a job. Mr. Hora concluded that when people talk about the skills gap, they mean a mix of things, only some of which colleges have much control over.”

“Our study is not an attempt to absolve higher education," Hora tells the Chronicle, noting that colleges can improve teaching methods and instructional design to encourage active learning so that students develop what he calls 21st-century habits of mind.

But other groups are implicated, too. Hora tells the Chronicle: “It’s broadening the terms of the debate and discussion to include employers’ responsibility, the role of culture, of caregivers, and higher education, to have a more realistic and informed discussion.”

To learn much more about this complex, hot-button topic, check out the entire report on this Chronicle web page.

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