Matthew Hora has touched a nerve with his 2017 book Beyond the Skills Gap: Preparing College Students for Life and Work (Harvard Education Press). Hora and coauthors Ross Benbow and Amanda Oleson have won the Frederic W. Ness Book Award from the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The award honors the book that best contributes to the understanding and improvement of liberal education.
Beyond the Skills Gap challenges the notion that educational institutions are out of sync with employer needs. Hora and his colleagues at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research conducted interviews at Wisconsin businesses, colleges, and universities about the skills necessary to succeed in today’s job market. They discovered that the prevailing wisdom about a “skills gap”—the notion that jobs remain unfilled because higher education fails to prepare workers for in-demand careers—is deeply flawed.
“The main idea of Beyond the Skills Gap is that too often skills, teaching, and careers are inaccurately boiled down to technical or structural ‘things,’ such as the idea of obtaining skills simply by attending a short workshop, or teaching skills by focusing on technical knowledge,” says Hora, an assistant professor of adult teaching and learning in the Department of Liberal Arts and Applied Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison Continuing Studies. “Instead, for many of the competencies educators and employers value—especially things like communication and critical thinking—we argue that they’re best thought about as cultural artifacts taught to people through a slow process of enculturation into a community of professionals, much like traditional apprenticeships work.”
Hora admires the Association of American Colleges and Universities as a staunch defender of the liberal arts model of higher education. The organization was clearly impressed by the book’s exploration of multidisciplinary education as a means of providing diverse skills that can serve students in their careers and in a democratic society.
“The fact that Beyond the Skills Gap describes real people in a real place—i.e., Wisconsin—undergoing considerable political turmoil regarding the skills gap and the role of higher education made the book more accessible than if it had been a more academic treatment of the labor market or postsecondary education,” Hora says.
Hora is gratified by the response to Beyond the Skills Gap from academics, politicians, business people, and others interested the book’s approach to systemic reform. He’s received many invitations to speak on the role of active learning and career advising in providing transferable and marketable skills.
“I hope our book can inject into the debates about skills gaps some recognition that, while higher education certainly can change, so too should employers, government, and society at large be included as parties that play an important role in how students and employees acquire skills,” Hora says. “Too often the dialogue is only about blaming colleges for not teaching the ‘right’ or ‘in-demand’ skills, and the role of family, workplace training, and government support of public education is ignored.”
Hora and his collaborators are following up on Beyond the Skills Gap by studying how four specific skills (teamwork, communication, critical thinking, and self-regulated learning) are being taught in four fields (nursing, energy, software development, and mechanical engineering). Hora has also launched the UW-Madison Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions, which is exploring the prevalence of “middle-skill” jobs, the effect of college internships on student outcomes, and other issues relevant to learners’ academic and career success.
Postsecondary educators interested in Hora’s approach can register for his online course Integrating 21st Century Skills Into the College Classroom. It delves into theory, research, and practical classroom applications regarding those noncognitive skills Hora is currently studying: teamwork communication, problem-solving, and self-regulated learning. The course runs May 21 to July 20; see here for more information.