Why is the Most Educated Generation in U.S. History Struggling to Attain Professional Success?

February 15, 2017 Ashley Yazbec

Frankhuang Getty Images.jpg

It’s no secret that job prospects remain dismal for American youth. While the economy has somewhat improved after the Great Recession, the fact remains that 39 percent of people under 25 are unemployed or underemployed. This statistic leaves many wondering: how is it possible that the most educated generation in U.S. history struggles to gain footing in the professional world?

Some experts point to one culprit: the skills gap.

What Is the Skills Gap?

The skills gap – a cumbersome issue with oft-disputed causes and solutions – refers to the disparity between those who are unemployed or underemployed and the number of open positions in the job market. Put simply; there are a disproportionate number of jobs to skilled workers. This imbalance causes tremendous strain within our economy – mainly from the perspective of two groups of people: college grads and employers.

Recent college graduates currently experience greater difficulty in securing a job that utilizes their degree than those of a similar age a decade ago. In fact, among college-educated youth, only 55 percent landed in a position relevant to their field of study, with 25 percent finding interim work – jobs that are unrelated to their field of study and that youth plan to leave quickly, according to a McKinsey study.

Considering these statistics, it’s easy to assume that there’s a job shortage, which is not the case. On the contrary, 2014 marked the longest stretch of uninterrupted private sector job growth in US history. Yet, employers report that candidates don’t have the right skills to fill vacant positions. This trend is particularly prevalent when searching for skilled manufacturing workers, healthcare workers, and in fields relating to the STEM disciplines.

However, the disconnect between how institutions and employers view job-preparedness does provide some clarity. While 72 percent of educational institutions believe recent graduates are ready for work, only 42 percent of employers agree. This is primarily due to the fact that industry is changing at record speed. This means that, in some cases, the need for particular skills can actually precede the programs necessary to develop these skills. Second, many in-demand competencies that employers consider essential to the workplace – hands-on training, problem-solving, computer literacy – are not emphasized or not easily measured by educators.

What Is the Impact?

Yes, the skills gap has become especially pronounced over the past several years, but what are the consequences of such a misalignment? According to research conducted by the University of Missouri - Saint Louis, skill gaps reduce productivity and diminish employee performance. Other potential consequences include the risk of not achieving strategic plans, lack of leadership vision, loss of market share, reduced positive employee working relationships, and increased turnover.

Likewise, college graduates are left with few options if their degree isn’t providing a return on investment. As more young people are forced to take low-wage jobs, they risk defaulting on their student loans or deferring payment altogether. And national student debt is not an insignificant threat to the economy. Two-thirds of students graduating from U.S. colleges and universities are graduating with some level of debt. The average student incurs $26,600 in debt upon graduation. One in ten graduates will incur more than $40,000. The result of mounting debt means that young people in their mid- to late-twenties are increasingly postponing traditional life events, such as home-buying, marriage, and saving for retirement.

How Do We Bridge the Gap?

Institutions must recognize that their paramount measure of success is the ability of their graduates to obtain gainful employment. To that end, employers and educators are tasked with facilitating an open dialogue to adequately prepare students for the workforce.

On their end, employers need to be more transparent with the competencies they require or foresee requiring their workers to possess. This clarity not only streamlines the hiring process for prospective candidates but also enables educators to align learning outcomes with in-demand skills better. Also, practical, hands-on-learning is increasingly preferred by students and employers alike, yet only 24 percent of academic-program graduates and 37 percent of vocational graduates said that they spend most of their time in this manner. By developing programs that foster active collaboration between students and industry leaders – such as internships and feedback on project-based coursework – employers and educators can ensure they’re producing a strong talent pipeline over the long-term.

How are you addressing the Skills Gap in your classroom? Share your strategies below in the Comments.

Image Credit: Frank Huang/Getty Images


About the Author

Ashley Yazbec

Account Manager, Wiley // Currently, I am the Publisher's Representative serving the Silicon Valley area of California, representing the Pacific Northwest District.

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