Falzon and Fuller: America's critical challenge in 2020 -- We must close our skills gap

The quickening pace of technological change is overwhelming the ability of America’s traditional skills system to keep up

While analysts pore over the recent jobs report to decipher the strength of the economy, other data reveals an emerging workforce challenge—a widening skills gap that threatens American prosperity.

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For the past year and a half, the number of unfilled jobs has hovered above seven million, largely because workers with the right skillsets cannot be identified.

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The quickening pace of technological change is overwhelming the ability of America’s traditional skills system to keep up. Left unchecked, the gap will grow putting America’s competitiveness and economic future at risk.

It’s time for the business community to acknowledge that it will have to assume the leading role and collaborate with other stakeholders to successfully address the skills gap.

Workers themselves are expressing angst about having the right skills for the future. Roughly a third of workers do not believe they have the skills to compete today and less than half believe they will have the skills to compete in 10 years, according to Prudential’s newly released Pulse of the American Workers Survey, conducted by Morning Consult.

No one, including workers themselves, disputes their responsibility to prepare for the future workplace. For example, a study by the Harvard Business School and Boston Consulting Group (BCG) shows the overwhelming majority of workers in the United States recognize they must take ownership for developing the skills necessary to secure their futures.

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However, workers face obstacles in attempting to do so. Workers cite struggles with barriers such as cost and time constraints, while lacking confidence in their ability to identify the skills they need.

Even if those barriers were lifted, workers would still face the challenge of available offerings. The Prudential survey found that one in five workers say their employers do not offer any training.

Businesses are uniquely positioned to address these problems and have a beneficial interest in doing so. The Harvard Business/BCG study found nine in 10 business leaders anticipate that a shortage of workers with the necessary skills will impact their organizations in the next 10 years. That includes 44 percent who expect it to impact their organizations in the near term.

It’s time for the business community to acknowledge that it will have to assume the leading role and collaborate with other stakeholders to successfully address the skills gap.

Employers recognize both the needs and challenges of today’s workers. As confirmed by the Harvard Business/BCG research, when asked what prevents employees from preparing themselves for the future of work, employers cite many of the same barriers identified by workers.

Yet, the business community has been slow to develop innovative, scalable solutions. Investments must be made to break this cycle or we risk jeopardizing America’s competitiveness and, more broadly, our collective prosperity.

Some employers are beginning to rise to the challenge. Prudential has chosen to undergo a thorough workforce planning and skills assessment across each business and function. Notably, the exercise uncovered an increasing need for soft skills—such as adaptability, strategic thinking and a learning mindset—over the next three to five years.

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Prudential also recently launched the Skills Accelerator, a technology-enabled program that helps workers assess their skillset, identify potential gaps and engage in specific learning paths to build the skills needed for them to succeed in their future roles. While the program is in its infancy, the early results show promise of yielding material benefits.

The good news is Prudential is not alone. More Fortune 500 companies have recently announced large-scale commitments to skilling their workforces. As more companies join these early movers, they will benefit from partnerships with skills providers, specifically community colleges that are the backbone of America’s skills system.

This collaboration will help improve the prospects of aspiring workers and compel policymakers to adopt more innovative mechanisms for encouraging training and work-based learning programs.

The growth and prosperity of American businesses—and our nation’s economic competitiveness —will rely on this collective effort across the public and private sector.

Rob Falzon is Vice Chair of Prudential Financial. Joseph Fuller is Co-Chair of the Harvard Business School Project on Managing the Future of Work.

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