"He owned nothing but the razor; when he had put that into his pocket, he was ready to travel, one mile or a thousand, wherever the street of the imperceptible corners should choose to run."
- William Faulkner, "Light in August"
A friend recently told me the story of his father's immigration. He arrived in America as a 6-year-old with his brother and their recently widowed father before the turn of the 20th century. Orphaned several years later, Gene's Dad grew up among a variety of relatives, never graduated from high school, worked in a slaughterhouse and for a junk dealer, sold used cars and eventually acquired his own Buick dealership. Along the way he settled near Boston, married, raised nine children (all of whom graduated from college), stayed in the same home in the same neighborhood and never aspired for more than to be a cantor at his synagogue.
Reflecting on this story and that of my own great-grandfather, who escaped the potato famine in Ireland with his father a half-century before Gene's dad left Russia, I am led to reconsider this issue of the so-called "skills gap" with which we have recently become so enamored. Is the gap really between the knowledge we have and the knowledge we need? Is the problem simply one of enumerating the needed skills, assembling the requisite teachers and lining up both the unemployed and those about to enter the labor market to receive the appropriate instruction?
This formulation makes the problem analogous to cars lining up before the York turnpike tollbooths on Labor Day weekend. As one lane lengthens because someone can't find the correct change or asks for directions, oncoming cars move to another. So long as the Turnpike Authority hires enough toll takers and ensures that the red and green lights above each booth work properly, traffic will flow through smoothly. And road sensors, remote cameras and "talking" signs can further inform drivers about traffic conditions well before they reach the tollbooths, thus enhancing smooth vehicular flow even more.
If today's labor market is like a modern, controlled-access highway, then the "skills gap" formulation applies -- improve the accuracy and timeliness of information about traffic conditions, and transportation flow will remain smooth. But if today's labor market is more like a shadowy path through the woods on a windy day -- "the street of the imperceptible corners" -- then the more important gap is not that between existing and required skills, but that between naive and realistic expectations. And the most important skills required refer less to a projected destination than to an attitude toward the journey.
Another friend at the breakfast where I learned about Gene's father told of the growing number of survey responses provided by seniors at the college where he teaches filled with angry commentary about the "unfairness" of assuming enormous debt to successfully complete a degree and then not be able to find a "good" job. Student expectation is, like drivers entering the turnpike, "I pay the fee you require, I expect to get where I want to go when I want to get there. And if that expectation is not met, I blame you."
I don't mean to say that all college students today are coddled and entitled and should be grateful to work anywhere they can. What I mean to say is that the "gap" problem includes both skills and expectations; and that the expectation part of the problem applies to educators and employers as well as to students and job seekers. It is just as unrealistic for an employer to expect that putting an ad in the paper will draw a flurry of qualified applicants as it is for a student to expect that walking across a stage to receive a piece of paper from a woman wearing a long robe and a funny square hat will be followed immediately by the offer of a dream job. Indeed, the very idea of "a job" is itself long overdue for serious reconsideration on the "realistic expectations" front. To solve the problems in today's labor market requires reformulating all three elements of the question -- What skills? What expectations? What jobs?
Charles Lawton is Chief Economist for Planning Decisions, Inc. He can be reached at: