Full Length Interview with Matt Hora


Posted In: Workforce Insight, Workforce Research

Apr • 26 • 2017

In College for America’s downloadable eBook, The Liberal Arts at the Office: Addressing the New Skills Gap, Matthew Hora, Assistant Professor of Adult and Higher Education at UW-Madison, discussed a recent survey on the alignment between workforce and postsecondary curriculum.


Hora and his team study what skills employers are looking for and how educational institutions are developing them. They particularly focus on how the skills gap narrative plays out in two critical industries: advanced manufacturing and biotechnology.


In order to understand the intersection between the educational sector and industry, they interviewed 141 employers and educators across Wisconsin. The resulting policy brief provides recommendations for how Wisconsin lawmakers and educators should address the skills gap.


Hora’s book, Beyond the Skills Gap: Preparing College Students for Life and Work, was released November 2016 from Harvard Education Press.


Hora had more to say on the subject than we were able to include in the ebook, so we offer you this longer version of his interview.


What were you surprised to hear from employers in your study?


We were fascinated to hear that work ethic was the biggest missing skill. Work ethic comes from social factors like parenting, work opportunities you have as a teenager, and the type of role models you’re exposed to while you’re growing up. It’s important, but it’s difficult to teach.


“Lifelong learning” is a related skill employers talked about. It’s an education buzzword, but we heard it more from employers than educators. Manufacturers aren’t just making the same diesel pump every week for years on end, and employers are struggling to find people who have flexible intellectual and social skills to learn new machinery and processes quickly.


We also heard that employees are having a hard time finding skilled workers. This wasn’t a surprise, but the one thing that the skills gap narrative leaves out is the reason. There’s an idea that the skills gap is there because colleges and universities aren’t properly teaching students. But according to employers, things like drug and alcohol abuse, low wages, and facilities in areas nobody wants to relocate to play a part.


How well do the competencies developed in colleges translate into the workplace?


Our research found that both educators and employers want many non-cognitive competencies, like communication, to be embedded within the discipline. Educators want students to know how to communicate within a biology lab. Employers want employees to know how to communicate in frontline customer service or in a high-level executive position.


Problem-solving in an advanced manufacturing context where you’re troubleshooting a CNC [Computer Numeric Control] machine is very different than problem-solving in a biotechnology research lab. Basic cognitive abilities can be applied to both settings, but as you go higher up within a discipline, it’s no longer generic.


How does a general education background prepare employees with these skills?


Non-cognitive competencies can be taught in any course. Something like teamwork or communication doesn’t need to be taught in arts and humanities. It can be in a math course or biology.


The difference is that the arts and humanities are particularly well-suited for certain types of skills. One big skill employers are looking for is the ability to resolve conflicts and to interact with other cultural groups. You aren’t going to learn that in a chemistry class, but a sociology or anthropology course will teach you how to understand differences. That’s one of the arguments in favor of general education. It gives a student a broad range of skills across disciplines.


Is the skills gap helping or hindering the way that universities and employers work together?


It has put the idea that college is about job preparation on the radar screens of policy makers. Technical and community colleges have been ahead of the game here, but a lot of four-year institutions are still catching up.


The damaging part of the narrative is thinking college is only about job preparation. Deemphasizing other purposes, such as preparing people to participate in a democracy, is not where we want to go as a society.


The narrative can also lead to quick-fix solutions, which is shortsighted. A technical college instructor we interviewed brought up the idea of training “habits of mind” while talking about teaching students how to solve electrical repair problems. He said, “I’m not teaching students how to read a manual or apply a cookbook recipe. I’m trying to teach them a way to think.” The reason that’s so important is his students will rarely come across the same problems — they must be prepared to think on their feet.


That’s one of the limitations of the bootcamp model that’s emerging. There’s a role for them, but learning how to properly and adequately solve problems takes time.