Do employers really need the skills they say they want? – implications for building effective education-industry partnerships

Implications for building effective education-industry partnerships

Employers do not uniformly possess accurate or useful knowledge of skill needs.

A wise man once said that a person is known by the company he keeps, but could then also add that the character of the company is known by the people it keeps for the longest days, especially at the strategic decision making level.
― Anuj Somany

This article presents empirical evidence from a study in technical work which challenges conventional wisdom about skills and skill requirements and has broad implications for school reform.

The US, of course, is not alone in defining new skills for the workplace. They are called ‘core skills’ in England and Scotland, ‘essential’ skills in New Zealand, and ‘key competencies’ in Australia (c.g. Gonczi ez al., 1995). A cursory comparison of these different conceptions of new skills reveals a great deal of overlap.

Guided reading and extracts:  Cathleen Stasz, Do Employers Need the Skills They Want? Evidence from technical work, Journal of Education and Work, Vol. 10, N0. 3, 1997


Changes in the modern workplace, brought about by technology and management innovations and by increased global competition, raise many concerns about the
adequacy of workforce skills. In the US and elsewhere, these concerns have led to new ideas
about skills, in particular the need for generic skills’ like problem solving, teamwork, and

Many employers and policymakers in the US believe that these skills are necessary for work across most jobs and support school reforms to teach them.

This article presents empirical evidence from a study in technical work which challenges conventional wisdom about skills and skill requirements and has broad implications for education and training reform.

Work Context Matters in the Consideration of Skills
Do employers need the skills they want? In the Summary, the answer is ‘yes’.

Conceptions of new skills for work, as defined here, are salient to the workers,
supervisors, and managers who took part in this study. Skills like communications,
problem solving, and working as part of a team are readily observed across different
jobs and, according to study participants, are essential to effective performance.

However, work context matters in the consideration of skills, While these skills are
identifiable in all jobs, their specific characteristics and importance vary between
them. The characteristics of problem solving, teamwork, and communication re-
quirements are related to job demands, which in turn depend on the purpose of the
work, the tasks that comprise the job, the organization of the work, and other aspects
of the work context.

For education and training to be effective, these contextual differences need to be
taken into account. Better information about skills in work can help instructors
design programs to teach them. In addition, better information can help employers
in selecting and screening job applicants. These contextual differences also have
broad implications for education reforms, discussed further below.

School Reforms Must Reflect Contextual Nature of Skills

School reforms in the US and other countries recommend closer links between
school and work.

One proposal is to increase students’ exposure to authentic work practices that provide opportunities to apply abstract concepts or knowledge to real problems. Our study supports the value of this approach, since technical workers learn and apply skills as they are called for in work practice. Work experience provides one way for students to learn skills in context. The impetus behind many work-based learning programs is to structure that experience to make school-based and work-based learning complementary.

School-based learning can give students skills to help them prepare for work—including basic academic, technical, or social skills. Conversely, work experiences should provide opportunities for students to apply school learning, and to learn new skills and develop appropriate work-related attitudes. Work-based learning, linked to school programs, should add value to school-based learning.

In addition, students can learn many new skills in classrooms, provided that learning environments are properly designed. Models for designing authentic learning envirornnents that reflect ‘authentic’ work practice include traditional apprenticeship methods and, more recently, cognitive apprenticeship. Cognitive apprenticeship applies some of the situated, guided characteristics of traditional apprenticeship to the teaching of thinking and problem solving (Brown et al., 1989;Collins ez al., 1989; Collins, in press).

Our previous research on teaching generic skills in academic and vocational high school classes demonstrates how this model can be used to promote student problem solving, teamwork, and development of work-related dispositions (Stasz ez al., 1990, 1993).

Change Teacher Training to Support School Reforms

For these school reforms to succeed, teacher training and staff development need to
change dramatically.

At the present time, teaching of new skills is hampered by the lack of appropriate instructional materials and by inadequate teacher training. Most pre—service teacher training in the US follows a baccalaureate model, which emphasizes subject matter preparation with the addition of courses in teaching methods.

Once graduated and working, teachers participate in various staff development
activities, but these typically amount to only a few days per year and are often brief,
superficial, and unconnected (Cohen et al., 1993). The content of pre-service and
in—service training still reflects a didactic pedagogy and instructional design theory.
Teachers and students still spend much time with lectures, formal recitations,
worksheets, or some combination thereof (Cohen et al., 1993). Instructional design
theory, derived from behaviorist and programmed instruction traditions, seeks to
transmit content and skills in a clear, well-structured, and efticient manner (Collins,
in press).

In contrast, learning skills in the context of work practice calls for a constructivist
teaching approach and some understanding of work practice. Otherwise, teachers
will not be able to design learning activities—at schools or workplaces—that connect
between school and work. Currently missing in traditional forms of teacher training
and staff development is the opportunity for teachers to come in contact with ‘expert
practitioners’ in business and industry or in college departments who are engaged in
relevant communities of practice. While teacher education employs ‘teaching ex-
perts’ to enhance professional development, they do not provide links to communities of practice outside the school.

New models of teacher preparation and staff development are needed to promote
constructivist teaching practices and to expand teachers’ knowledge of and connections with the world of work (Stasz et al., 1993).

These might involve summer internships for teachers, collaboration with industry mentors, or other experiences that deepen their knowledge of an occupational area and thus enhance teachers’ ability to design authentic learning activities connected to real work practice (Stasz, 1997).

Implications for Building Effective Education-Industry Partnerships

Many school reforms encourage closer cooperation and collaboration between education providers and employers through education—industry partnerships. Partnerships are expected to help education providers define the knowledge and skills that new workplaces demand so they can design more appropriate instructional programs.

Our study identified two potential problems that impact education – industry partnerships.

First, employers do not uniformly possess accurate or useful knowledge of skill needs. Thus, the individuals who work with schools should be carefully selected to bring specific knowledge about work that is sensitive to skill differences associated with jobs and work settings.

Our study also found that employers had weak connections to schools, and a generally poor opinion of American education. Some see little need for building partnerships as long as schools prepare students to ‘show up on time’ and to be ready to learn on the job. This suggests that developing partnerships may be a ‘hard sell’ for some employers. For school-to-work reforms to become widespread, it will be important to understand what incentives might encourage enough employers to pursue and maintain such partnerships (cf. Bailey, 1995).

Need for Research an many Key Issues

The discourse about new basic skills can benefit from more extensive research that
takes work context into account. Two areas seem particularly important for future

First, the relationship of skills to performance at work is largely unstudied,
particularly for the ‘s0ft’ skills. In the case of work dispositions or non-cognitive
factors, for example, theory is undeveloped, and the interplay between cognitive and
non-cognitive factors as they affect behavior and performance in work settings has
barely been explored. We need to better understand the process by which dispositions are learned or modified, If context plays a role in shaping them, as current theory suggests, then understanding non-cognitive factors is important for public policy related to education and training.

A second important area for research concerns learning at work. While most
workers learn by doing, we don’t know much about learning on the job—how it
happens, what conditions promote it, and how it affects productivity. In addition,
our study suggests that particular attention be paid to the role and function of
communities of practice in organizations and how they contribute to learning,
standard setting, efficiency, and so on.

Education Reform Alone will not Solve Skills Problems

Presently, the public discourse in the US about how to solve the skills ‘gap’ is somewhat one-sided. The skills problem is blamed on individuals who lack skills or on educational institutions that fail to teach them. This perspective of the problem focuses public policy on reforming schools or creating skill standards for individuals to achieve. Much less attention is paid to conditions of work and employment that also undermine skill development, productivity, and competitiveness.

Even in our small sample of firms, we found that employers often lack effective strategies for acquiring and developing skilled workers—they lack information about skill needs, face hiring constraints, fail to invest in training, and do not view the education system as a potential resource. Technical workers in the public agencies did not receive any formal training.

It is well documented that firm—sponsored, formal training in the US goes primarily to managers and college-educated workers, not to the front-line workers where coneems about skill quality and work changes are most pressing (Lillard & Tan, 1986; Vaughn & Berryman, 1989). If we are to improve training opportunities for these workers, then we must identify and create incentives that will encourage individuals and firms to invest in skill development. Policymakers have discussed several proposals that might be followed up on, such as providing training vouchers to individuals or taxing firms that do not invest some fixed proportion of their payroll in training.

While education alone will not solve our skills problems, US policymakers face many challenges in reforming the current system. Current training policy is focused primarily on developing skills of displaced workers or underemployed individuals.

The role of public policy in promoting employer investments in training remains controversial. In the US training system, training needs are iilled by individual
workers’ and individual firms’ decisions to invest in training or not.

On the plus side, this makes for a very flexible system at the individual level.

On the minus side, it does not add up to a national strategy.

In the long run, policies to improve the education and training in the US will have to focus on building a more comprehensive system that maximizes the return on public and private investments in work.
force development.


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