What Obama Failed to Mention About the ‘Skills Gap’

This year, in his final State of the Union Address, President Obama shared his thoughts on the future of work. Echoing industry leaders across the nation, the president addressed what many are calling the “skills gap” — the disconnect between the needs and expectations of employers and the current skills of our nation’s workers.

“Real opportunity requires every American to get the education and training they need to land a good-paying job,“ the president said. Later in his speech, he stated that “Americans understand that at some point in their careers, they may have to retool and retrain… Say a hardworking American loses his job  –  we shouldn’t just make sure he can get unemployment insurance; we should make sure that program encourages him to retrain for a business that’s ready to hire him.”

I couldn’t agree more and applaud the president for bringing much-needed attention to this growing issue. In today’s economy, skills are a universal currency, and many American workers are coming up short. Moreover, our system of higher education can’t meet the needs of this population segment, as most working adults don’t have the money, time, or desire to go back to school every time they need to update their skills, which happens more frequently in the 21st-century workplace.

With technology reshaping virtually every aspect of how the world works — and with lots of companies, nonprofits, think tanks, and other institutions exploring new models for education and continuous learning (including my company, Udemy) — you’d think we would be closing this gap. Yet reports continue to indicate a record number of job openings and stagnant new hires. So, simply creating new digital tools isn’t the cure-all for getting Americans into good-paying careers.

Even providing greater access to educational resources isn’t enough. As the adage goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. In a country still in love with traditional higher education, not everyone has embraced the idea they must assume responsibility for their ongoing skills development — and then to go out and do it. We’re still at the stage where most online learners are people who are already self-motivated, ambitious, and proactive in pursuing their career goals.

With leaders like our president sounding the alarm, however, more people should get the message that college is a good start but not the end to learning if you want to keep your career on track. I just talked to a Udemy student who told me he hated learning in school, but after he got out and worked for just a few years, he saw that “the world was leaving me behind.” He knew he had to put in the effort and advance his skills if he wanted to keep up and not miss out on opportunities. Now, he’s a huge fan of online learning and loves that he can control the experience — taking courses when it’s convenient, in bite-size pieces whenever he has a free moment, at his own pace. As he put it, there’s no excuse nowadays for people NOT to take advantage of available resources to up-skill themselves.

But that student isn’t reflective of the majority of working adults in the U.S. That’s going to take a broader cultural shift away from the structured rigor of tradition and toward an appreciation for curiosity and lifelong learning.

Employers can help foster this attitude by building it into their onboarding and mentorship programs. Many of them are already rejecting elite degrees listed on a resume in favor of candidates who can actually show their skills in action and demonstrate an aptitude for learning new ones. Corporate training, once dismissed as unbearable drudgery, should incorporate new digital technologies that make learning more engaging, effective, and manageable too. By encouraging employees to grow and stretch beyond their current roles — and helping them do it — companies can develop a skilled workforce in house instead of waging a battle for qualified talent on the open market.

Governments, too, can have great impact on how people equip themselves with 21st-century skills. Singapore recently made headlines with the launch of a massive government-supported re-skilling program called SkillsFuture. The program provides $500 for every Singaporean age 25 and over that they can put toward various skills-based courses. This bold government initiative is the type of undertaking needed to close the growing skills gap in the U.S. It also serves as a powerful signal that the skills gap is not just a domestic challenge and a failure to address it will have real economic consequences.

President Obama has brought the skills gap issue to the fore of public debate, encouraging government to invest in up-skilling the country’s workforce and calling on tech companies to help solve society’s biggest problems. But it’s also on us as individuals to take the initiative and develop our skills. The tools and resources are here, with options to fit virtually any career goal and lifestyle. Let’s make it a priority, as a nation, to get every working adult excited about lifelong learning and the future it can put within reach.

Mr. Yang originally published this opinion editorial in The Hill.
Dennis Yang
About the author: 

Based in San Francisco, CA, Dennis Yang is the Chief Executive Officer at Udemy, the world’s online learning marketplace, where 10 million students are taking more than 40,000 courses.  Mr. Yang served as an Executive Advisor to Flipboard and a Senior Vice President at 4INFO prior to Udemy.  Dennis has his MBA from Stanford, and you can follow him on Twitter here.