Bridging the skills gap

by Kathrin Hoeckel
Analyst, Skills Beyond Schools Division, Directorate for Education

If you were to ask someone which countries tend to bear the brunt of a shortage of skills in this era of globalised trade, you couldn’t fault them for thinking of developing countries.

While this is certainly true, the problem is by no means limited to poorer countries. Indeed, even in countries at the forefront of the developed world and consistently at the top of the PISA rankings, skills shortages can plague the economy.

Two such countries are Australia and Canada.

The Canadian Council on Learning says there is a clear “gap between the demand for workers with strong literacy and numeracy skills and the supply of Canadians who possess them.” They point out that the growth in the information communication technology industries, coupled with the reduced demand for unskilled workers due to foreign outsourcing, has only served to intensify the need for skilled workers. The question is why there is such a gap when Canadian teenagers do so well on tests such as PISA’s. The answer, they posit, lies in the failure of adults to keep up with the “demands of the emerging knowledge society and information economy”. In other words, lifelong learning is as essential to a strong economy as successful schools (as can be seen in the OECD’s Education at a Glance statistics on adult participation in education and learning, job-related training is comparatively low in Canada).

Australian companies are also hard hit by the skills gap. The Australian Institute of Management recently released a study that found 82% of organisations admit to a skills shortage in their workplace, with middle management lacking particularly in leadership and technical skills.

Brian Schmidt, Australia’s 2011 Nobel Prize winner for Physics, feels that a key problem is the lack of skilled teachers, particularly in maths and science. He points to the OECD’s Education at a Glance statistics on teacher salaries, which indicates that there tends to be a correlation between well paid teachers and students that excel.

The country’s mining industry is suffering, in Mr Schmidt’s opinion, from a direct consequence of this. He says that the industry’s lack of highly trained engineers threatens the resource boom currently under way in Australia. He relates how the chair of the mining company BHP Billiton told him the biggest problem his company faces is finding highly skilled employees competent in mathematics.

The consequences could be dire for Australia. BHP Billiton predicts that the mining industry alone will require an additional 150 000 workers over the next five years.

Furthermore, Chris Evans, Australia’s Minister for Tertiary Education and Skills, estimates that Australia will need over 2 million additional workers by 2015 with higher vocational education and training (VET) qualifications. To meet this challenge, Australia drew up ambitious plans just last year to improve its existing VET system (which, as Learning for Jobs: OECD Reviews of Vocational Education and Training shows, is already quite strong) by investing up to €15 billion by 2020.

In Latin America, an altogether different region of the world, the economic pain from the skills gap – evocatively known in Spanish as “la brecha”, or the breach – is also acutely felt. According to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), youth unemployment has increased across Latin America more than any other region in the world, and this can be directly attributed to young people lacking the skills required by the labour market. Not surprising when time and time again the research shows that poor skills go hand in hand with economic hardship.

In a study released earlier this month, the IDB stated that the youth in Latin America have a long way to go in developing the “interpersonal skills the market requires, such as responsibility, communication and creativity”. Its research shows that the majority of young workers across the region have informal jobs and lack social benefits.

One thing that is common to all these countries is that children from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds are disadvantaged when it comes to foundation skills in reading, mathematics and science (see OECD’s Education at a Glance statistics on equality in educational outcomes and opportunities). However, countries with the very best scores in PISA tend to have schools that are more inclusive. In other words, students can score well regardless of their socio-economic background. This in turn benefits the economy and society as a whole.

For if knowledge and skills are the global currency of the 21st century, countries will do well to stock up on their reserves. They can do so by encouraging people to learn, enticing skilled people to enter their countries, encouraging people to use and build their skills at work, retaining skilled people, matching skills to demand, and finally increasing the demand for high-level skills. That goes for economic heavyweights and flyweights alike.

Interested in learning more? Watch out for the OECD Skills Strategy, coming in May 2012, where we will lay the land for bridging the skills gap, turning brain drain into brain exchange, coping with ageing societies and declining skills pools and more.

OECD Skills Strategy
Education at a Glance 2011: OECD Indicators
Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

Photo credit: © olly / Shutterstock

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