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What Skill Gap?

Authored By: 
James Vescovi, English Teacher

News flash: The educational “skills gap”—on which the media report regularly and who tell us is the fault of “failing schools” and “lazy, tenured teachers”—is not what you’ve been led to believe.  Corporate HR departments across America are saying that the young women and men they hire largely possess the knowledge and (with a modicum of on-site training) skills necessary to do the work.  Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Charlotte Kent explains: “In the large debate around a nationwide skills gap that colleges [face], attention focuses on reading, writing, math abilities, tech knowledge, and other specialized skills. Yet, overall, employers report little deficit in basic reading, writing, and math skills.”

The real gap, according to Kent, involves the soft skills: punctuality, organization, patience, self-motivation, and work ethic. Kent is a visiting assistant professor at Mercy College in New York. She is trying to fill in the soft-skills chasm with rules that some people call “draconian” and “that students often don’t believe and even many colleagues question.” What are these oppressive policies? (1) If her students are late, they are marked absent (though are free to stay); (2) A due date for a paper or project is posted; if a student misses it, she loses points—period; (3) Oh, and there’s no extra credit, which students often beg for because they’ve blown off the assigned work. In varying degrees, Beekman teachers follow this regime.

Kent’s essay asks, “Why aren’t college and even high school students already familiar with these skills?” It’s also a problem that defies wealth and class; millennials lack these skills whether they grew up on Park Avenue on the south or north side of East 96th Street. I’m sure sociologists can give us a passel of reasons, but here’s one not often mentioned:  Many parents today would rather their children be brilliant than decent. Maybe this is because the world has become more competitive and, subconsciously, we believe that “nice guys finish last”.

In college, my wife had a famous drawing professor who told her, laughingly, that a woman once came to him with her eight-year-old daughter’s “portfolio”. Showing some art the girl had done at six, the mother bragged, “This was her Blue Period.” Picasso, eat your heart out.

In junior high, I was a clown who earned As, but received dismal marks in class citizenship (behavior) for planning gags that upended class. Fed up, my father finally confronted me and said, “I’d rather you be a B student who behaves.”  (It was phrased as a choice but a command was implied.)

It’s my hope that the instilling of soft skills can shift back to the home, where students of my generation (the 1960s and ‘70s) learned them. An added benefit: this will free up teachers to do more teaching and less training.

Psychologists tell us that good character pays off in job success but also in contentment with one’s life. As the Good Book says, “Seek ye this, and all good things shall follow unto you.”

 

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