The dangerous skills gap myth

Skills Gap

I guess we should start out by defining what exactly a “skills gap” is. You probably have an understanding of the term, but for the sake of clarity, here goes:

  • An employer believes that job-seekers need to have specific skills in order to work for them
  • As they go through a hiring process, they realize those skills aren’t common in the candidate pool
  • This is a “skills gap”

A big example in recent years is a specific type of coding experience (say, /r) or some type of data management system background. Some hair-on-fire hiring manager is chasing those skills because he keeps getting nailed by his boss about balls being dropped, and he can’t find those skills. So he bellows constantly about a “skills gap.” Others come to believe in this skills gap as well.

This is a dangerous road to go down and yet, we let companies and managers go down it every single day. Why is it a problem, though?

Skills Gap, Tier 1: Hiring and recruiting processes

I won’t belabor this section. Most hiring processes are terrible to the point of being totally broken. Many “recruiting strategies” do nothing but alienate the best candidates, automate everything to the hilt, and make people feel like a nuisance for asking follow-up questions. The ways we bring in talent to companies are hugely flawed.

What typically happens is that a series of executives — i.e. “decision-makers” — spend a lot of time talking about talent, the war for talent, and talent strategy. In all truthfulness, they could give 0.22 shits about “talent strategy.” It’s complete lip service designed as “This sounds better than discussing money at every meeting.”

What happens 10 minutes after the meeting where “the war for talent” is discussed? The executives run to an internal meeting — and discuss money for three hours straight, often giggling with glee as they do so. This is the closest thing that many men have to legitimate fun. Honestly.

So tier 1 of the skills gap problem is this: it’s hard to solve a problem rooted in so much hogwash, as recruiting and hiring often are.

Skills Gap, Tier 2: Live in the real world

If you spend $80,000 on a MBA, here’s one of the central lessons therein: business problems arise all the time, and you gotta find a way to solve them. You gotta pivot, or adjust strategy, or lay people off, or cut costs, or whatever else. A one-sentence description of “business” might be “You try to be productive and make money, all the while beating back problems that arise with creative, strategic solutions.” Of course, no one really does that and most business is just hair-on-fire box-checking where you toss yourself on the cross with the regularity that some change socks, but I digress.

The point is: problems arise, and you solve them. Supply chain is screwed! Solve it. Our customer funnel is dying in the middle! Rally the troops and solve it. This is what you do. That’s what being “a businessman” is all about.

Except when it comes to the skills gap.

There, we’re allowed to yelp, bellow, screech, holler, and pound our chests about how the “system” is failing us. “Why don’t these people know how to write that type of code,” a manager whines. “It’s the skills gap!”

As Liz Ryan notes in this article, the skills gap is basically imaginary. It’s an invented blame game that lets weak leaders not live in the real world. Actually, now that I think about it, “blame game where weak leaders don’t live in the real world” might be a better definition of “business” as a whole.

Skills Gap, Tier 3: Salary issues

Let’s admit this off the top: very few people understand what their salary represents, even fewer can negotiate it, and almost no one scientifically understands their earning potential.

This part should make sense, though. Let’s use a quick example.


Let’s say you have a job that needs a background in marketing automation, but you also want an active porn star who speaks five languages, plays classical piano, and has written three novels. That’s a lot to ask from one person, right? You’d assume the salary for this role should be fairly competitive?

Let me scroll down on this imaginary job posting, and … oh, OK …


So, I need 17 highly-specific skills and yet, you find that to be worth $63,000? Once people with those 17 skills hear that number, they will exit your funnel — your “talent management pipeline,” sorry — and then you will be left with a bunch of also-ran losers with 8 of the 17 skills.

Rather than admitting that your lowball salary drove away the best people, what will you claim?

“There’s a skills gap on these classically-trained porn stars, Sam! The skills gap is real!”

It’s not.

Skills Gap, Tier 4: Put it all together

To me, the best elements of any company are people working together, solving problems, developing relationships, etc. That’s when work is “cool.”

The worst parts are blame game, cross-jumping, OMG I Am So So Busy, under-cutting, hair-on-fire, everything is urgent moments. That’s when work is “not cool.”

The skills gap narrative is dangerous because it’s a concrete example of the latter. It allows people to pass the buck on real problems. The problem is the salary you’re offering, or your hiring process. Fix those things by treating people like human beings, and/or with a modicum of respect. That would be the “cool businessman” thing to do.

Instead, we create this skills gap narrative bullshit. Now you don’t have to deal with the real issues, you can keep paying people dirt and keeping the real money for your senior leaders, and you probably feel pretty “strategic,” right?

You shouldn’t. The skills gap is an invented narrative designed to hide the real problems of a company’s talent plan.

Any other takes on this skills gap issue?

Ted Bauer

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