A prevailing storyline in commentary on education holds that a “skills gap” exists between college graduates and employers.

According to this narrative, schools aren’t adequately preparing students with the practical, vocational knowledge which they need to become valuable in the labor market. Along with tales of insurmountable student debt and bizarre, politically-charged course curricula, the notion of the skills gap further undermines the public’s respect for contemporary higher education.

But does this skills gap really exist? And if so, how can it be filled, so that education and employment are better aligned?

In an interview for the New Books Network, we spoke with an expert on this subject: Dr. Matthew T. Hora, an assistant professor of eduction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recently co-authored the book Beyond the Skills Gap: Preparing College Students for Life and Work. Along with co-authors Ross Benbow and Amanda Oleson, Hora conducted extensive research among employers and educators to get a better sense of the “skills gap” dynamic.

Their laboratory was the state of Wisconsin, a state with a very diverse set of labor sectors, a strong public education system, and a balanced (if not polarized) political environment. Hora and his colleagues conducted dozens of interviews and observation sessions in both the job and classroom environments, seeking to understand if Wisconsin’s postsecondary education was truly failing in its mission.

As the book explains, the skills gap narrative tends to be oversimplified and to include false assumptions. One such assumption is that educators are solely to blame for an unskilled workforce, when in fact employers share at least some responsibility for training workers for specific tasks. Also, the “skills gap” term may be inappropriately used to describe what is in fact a “skills shortage.” For example, if there is a shortage of welders in a particular region, one should not conclude that training in welding is not available, or that the education system is somehow failing.

Dr. Matthew Hora

In his interviews with employers, Hora found that they appreciated the complexities of job-readiness, and they accepted some responsibility for preparing their workers.

However, Hora observes that public policy makers tend not to appreciate this complexity, and instead accept the oversimplified skills gap narrative. As they do so, they blame educators exclusively for any labor skill shortages, and they demand more tactical, vocational training from public school systems.

In an emblematic instance of this political dynamic, Governor Scott Walker’s administration attempted to rewrite the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin system: the revised statement said the university’s primary purpose is “to meet the state’s workforce needs,” and it struck out the original declaration, “Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.”

Although these revisions were abandoned in response to ensuing criticism, they reflect the general shift towards vocationalism which is happening both in Wisconsin and nationwide.

To be sure, there is plenty of room for improvement in higher education, even if one does not accept that the emphasis needs to be on workforce training. The second half of Beyond the Skills Gap considers various methods of reform, including “active learning” and ways to inculcate better “habits of mind” in students, which will allow them to be adaptable and successful throughout their careers.

To hear more about Professor Hora’s thoughts on how to “cultivate the creative, rigorous thinkers that the business community needs,” you can listen to the interview here.