The Skills Gap

photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons

photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons

Have you heard of the “skills gap”? Recently, while researching and writing content for some business blogs, I found the discussion of the skills gap particularly interesting—the disconnect that employers complain exists between skills needed in the workforce and the education students are receiving. Employers complain that they get a landslide of resumes, but a large number of job applicants lack the necessary skills. According to Online Colleges, a resource for online education, our government is looking at a variety of ways to subsidize colleges and universities on the condition that academic programs better reflect job market trends. Good? Bad? Both?

With the economic downturn and reduced number of jobs, a student’s chosen field of study probably matters more now than ever. Many people with expensive liberal arts degrees are finding it difficult to get decent jobs (which makes me extremely sad). I’m all for the practical fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), but our society needs to be well rounded, doesn’t it? Little bit practical, little bit creative.

Management professor and director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources Peter Cappelli says employers now look at filling a job like buying a spare part. They expect the person to fit exactly without much investment in training. He also mentions that automation has made the hiring process easier and cheaper for companies, but if an applicant doesn’t use the right keywords and exact titles in writing job descriptions, they may get nixed, even if perfect for the job.

This sounds very faceless…and conforming. Is it me, or is that ironic? We’re always talking about thinking outside the box. But seems that a lot of times, we pretty much just like to put a checkmark in it and align it nicely with the others.

Another interesting point that Cappelli makes is that when pressed for details, employers often list “character issues” like punctuality and motivation as a greater deficiency than technical skills and education. Aha! Human factors. Something a computer couldn’t be the best judge in determining. We need face time. Time to grow and hone our unique gifts. I obviously don’t have the answers (or else I’d be getting paid the big bucks), but as you probably know already, I’m a firm believer in gaining early hands-on experience by volunteering or doing internships, which is basically the same thing—one just more formal and businesslike than the other.

True, certain fields are practical and have higher earning potential—and if you love them because that’s where your passion is? Full on great. But those in the arts and social sciences are still needed. Where would we be without those who love history and culture, and write it all down for the generations to come?

Where is the balance? Any ideas?

Three Cups of Tea Lawsuit Dismissed

Three Cups of Tea Lawsuit dismissedThis past Monday, the civil lawsuit against the Central Asia Institute (CAI) and the authors and publisher of Three Cups of Tea, was dismissed. The CAI is the non-profit Mortenson co-founded that works in Afghanistan and Pakistan building schools and promoting education.

Quick Catch-Up in Case You Don’t Know the Muck-Up. Author, Jon Krakauer and CBS news show “60 Minutes” did ‘exposes’ (more like accusation flinging) on purported untruths in Three Cups of Tea, disbelieving the CAI’s stats for schools built in Afghanistan and Pakistan; Greg Mortenson’s account of how he first came to be interested in building schools in such a remote and dangerous region; and whether he was really kidnapped by the Taliban. Read Mortenson’s response to these allegations.

Judge’s take: After plaintiffs were given five tries (amendments) to come up with a case to support their claims of fraud, deceit, breach of contract or racketeering, the judge concluded, “…the imprecise, in part flimsy, and speculative nature of the claims and theories advanced underscore the necessary conclusion that further amendment would be futile. This case will be dismissed with prejudice.” For more on the Mortenson case, read here.

A Few Points About the Mortensen/Three Cups of Tea Case:

  1. I’m glad I write mostly fiction.
  2. The CAI can now get on with their worthy mission in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Nothing like a lawsuit to stymie everything. They work with local communities to build, supply, staff, and maintain over 180 schools and 30 vocational centers. They provide support to an additional 56 schools, 20 literacy centers, eight scholarship programs, and 22 public health (potable water, midwifery, and disaster-relief) projects. (stats from CAI’s recent newsletter)
  3. Nobody’s perfect. Mortenson’s had issues with book royalties: how he benefitted…and how the CAI benefitted from his book sales and speaking engagements all over the world. Promote one; promote the other. Who pays? The dual benefit sounds like an accounting nightmare…and has proven to be. In April, the Montana Attorney  General announced a settlement where Mortenson pays $1M to the CAI for mismanagement of funds. But, if you’ve read Three Cups of Tea, you know that admin stuff is not his strong suit. In my opinion, he’s not a bad guy; he’s just not details-oriented. If he was more geared toward stopping to think about the possible ramifications and risks of things, he probably wouldn’t have accomplished what he has in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
  • Anyone who has worked in management or with volunteers knows you need to identify your team members’ strengths and weaknesses. Mortenson is an intrepid, fearless sort who puts himself out there and makes things happen. He’s passionate about education and its implications for peace. But that does not a detail-oriented person make. He needs those types around him to keep him on track.
  • I worked in humanitarian logistics for several years, so in the book, when he first talked about taking all these heavy-duty supplies to this remote, mountainous village to build a school, my brow furrowed and my mind immediately went to, “How are you going to get them there?” Again, not his initial strong suit. (But maybe now it is. Sometimes, just takes some trial and error).
  • Humanitarian work is HARD. Very. There are no cookie-cutter responses because there are so many facets and factors. Overseas projects involve many layers of people and dip into all kinds of cultural issues, often without first realizing it. (A subject I discuss in my book.)

A Concern in the Publishing Community Raised by this case:  Along with the CAI, Greg Mortenson (whose story it is) and David Oliver Relin (who wrote the book in collaboration with Mortenson), Penguin Group (the publisher) was named in the lawsuit. This would’ve had serious implications if they’d lost. It would’ve in effect held the publisher responsible for verifying every detailed fact their authors site as truth—a task next to impossible. (Don’t get me wrong; publishers need to act responsibly and not just print whatever, but complete verification would take more effort than running Top Secret background checks on each author.)

What are your views on this case? Do you think publishers should be held responsible for every word their authors say? What’s your take on Mortenson’s book and the lawsuit?

Impact of International Travel On Teens and Twenty-Somethings’ Career Paths

Get out and see the world: Why it can be a good idea for teens and twenty-somethings before jumping into the workforce.

The irony of traveling in foreign countries, especially when studying abroad or volunteering, is that you learn a great deal about yourself. Beyond self-reliance and how to get yourself around, my own personal experience has been it helps bring you closer to figuring out your purpose in life and what issues in the world matter most to you.

Some tough questions: Is your job or the degree you’re earning in college, right for you? How many of us later in life are NOT working in our field (on purpose)? How many of us would’ve liked to figure out earlier we wanted to do something else? If you want to be a doctor or nurse, maybe it would be a good idea to volunteer for a medical nongovernmental organization, see if medicine is where it’s at for you, or if you chose the profession for other reasons. And this goes for countless other professions as well, since humanitarian work covers pretty much every aspect and need of life.

While volunteering, you might just discover your niche. You might discover the topic of your thesis or develop special skillsets that boost your resume over other applicants. Immersed in a language, you might just become fluent.

Volunteering or studying abroad is thought, in general, to enrich understanding of other cultures and promote greater acceptance of people who dress or talk differently. Recent studies show study abroad programs having a huge impact on people—in particular, for those going somewhere in the developing world.  Many maintain a long-term interest in the places they visit and the cultures where they have made friends, and go on to invest time and effort in development programs or become social entrepreneurs.

Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times, says in his book, Half the Sky, that if you really want to help….”to tackle an issue effectively, you need to understand it—and it’s impossible to understand an issue by simply reading about it. You need to see it firsthand, even live in its midst.” (pg. 88) He goes on to say that he believes one of greatest failings of the American education system is that young people can graduate from university without any understanding of poverty at home or abroad. He is of the opinion universities should require graduates spend some time in the developing world by taking a gap year or study abroad.

What do you think? Should taking a gap year or study abroad in a developing country be a university requirement? (Personally, I would’ve jumped for joy to be ‘required’ to do that.)

Instilling the Volunteer Mindset in Your Kids

It’s never too early and there are many different ways. But, for college students interested in learning about international, sustainable development and maybe contemplating a future in that area, Semester at Sea (SAS) is something to consider. It’s learning in the field (several different countries) as well as in a classroom (onboard a ship, of course). SAS added a short-term voyage next May that has a curriculum based on the U.N. Millennium Development Goals. It’s open to college students around the world and any major. It’s not exactly cheap, but I’d say it’s economical for everything you get.

Check out the video.

Many years ago, I went on SAS, so I’m partial to the program. But, I can tell you that when they say it’s a life-altering experience, they mean it. Oh…and for teachers…if you apply to teach on a Semester at Sea voyage, I believe your family can go, too. (Specifics of that, I leave to you). But watching the kids interact in the countries and on the ship is amazing and worth several separate posts.

Three Cups of Tea

Three Cups of Tea is an inspiring true story of how one person can make a huge difference in the world without actually having that grandiose objective. Greg Mortenson is an American mountaineer who averts death on one of the world’s deadliest peaks, K2, thanks to the ministrations of the Balti people living in a tiny, impoverished village in northern Pakistan. He decides to build them a school.

Arguably, it could be said that Greg Mortenson is helping to not only build schools, but promote a cultural shift in the education of girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Was it easy to begin? No, there was a lot of trial and error. The projects were and are on the other side of the world in very hard to reach and dangerous places. In this book, there is quite literally a steep learning curve. But, is he succeeding? You bet. As of this year, he has established over 131 schools in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Part of that success, I believe, is about starting small, not thinking too big. Mortenson wanted to build a school in the village that helped him. A very focused goal. (So often, it’s easy to get sidetracked and overwhelmed.) He finished that project and then started on another. Now look at all he’s done since then. Oh…for Charleston, SC folks, Greg Mortenson will be speaking at the Carolina First arena on November 11th at 5:00 pm. Free event, but tickets will be distributed.

Have you ever volunteered for something ‘minor’ or what you might consider ‘menial’ and had it snowball into something much bigger or more impacting than you could have imagined?