Research News

WISCAPE policy brief offers different take on the 'skills gap'

December 03, 2015

A new policy brief from the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education (WISCAPE) examines the nature of the "skills gap" in Wisconsin, often cited as a principal reason for a sluggish economic recovery​, and stresses that students need more than technical skills to succeed.

Policy Brief coverThe brief, titled A Different Take on the "Skills Gap": Why Cultivating Diverse Competencies is Essential for Success in the 21st Century Economy, was authored by Matthew T. Hora, Ross J. Benbow, Amanda K. Oleson, and Yimin Wang of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER). Hora ​also is an assistant professor of adult teaching and learning in the Department of Liberal Arts and Applied Studies in the Division of Continuing Studies at UW-Madison.

The brief shares findings from a field study of educators and employers within the biotechnology and manufacturing sectors in Wisconsin, which highlights the importance of both technical and "non-cognitive" skills, such as collaboration and communication, for success ​the workplace. However, much of current workforce and higher education policy at both the state and federal levels is focused on ​cultivating technical skills in high-demand fields.

According to the brief, “Policymakers have relied on a skills gap narrative that provides a limited account of the complex issues facing higher education and the economy.” The authors call on policymakers to ​embrace strategies that cultivate diverse competencies in students and workers through support of teaching, training, and cross-sector collaboration.

Specific policy recommendations include:

  1. Adopt a broader sense of valuable skills -- focus on non-cognitive competencies.
  2. Provide funding to train postsecondary teachers and workplace trainers in hands-on, active learning techniques.
  3. Support general education and the liberal arts.
  4. Continue work to de-stigmatize skilled trades, but not at the expense of other industries and occupations.
  5. Encourage education-industry collaborations that foster diversified competencies.
  6. Re-frame the debate: Recognize that educators, employers, parents, and the broader culture all play a critical role in cultivating young people's competencies.

WISCAPE talk on December 10
Matthew Hora will present findings from this research at a WISCAPE brown bag ​discussion on December 10th at noon in the Wisconsin Idea Room (159 Education). All are welcome!

Hora's research was also featured in a recent ​article in Isthmus.

WISCAPE is housed within UW-Madison's School of Education.