Skills Gap? What Skills Gap?

Recent hiring patterns may reveal myth from reality, says Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.

Gary Burnison is the CEO of Korn Ferry and author of "The Leadership Journey: How to Master the Four Critical Areas of Being a Great Leader."

It’s the question that nags one corporate leader after another: Are we facing a skills gap? Whether one even exists is a matter of debate—just do a Google search for “Is the skills gap real?” and it will bring back more than 4.7 million hits. For every argument that organizations aren’t doing enough to upgrade worker skills, there’s another calling the gap a myth rooted in social inequality. 

A skills gap is traditionally defined as the qualifications needed to perform a job and those actually possessed by the employee. The implication is that if workers get the proper education and training, they would acquire the necessary skills. But if that’s the case, why are older people still working and getting hired? Presumably, given the accelerating pace of technological transformation, this cohort would be the most vulnerable.  

Yet, according to recent data, nearly 20% of people age 65 and older are still working, the highest level in at least five decades. Today, there are more workers age 55 and up than there are workers ages 16 to 24, and that gap is only expected to widen. Among the reasons cited for why people are still working past 65 instead of retiring include: They need the money; they like the company; they have a longer life expectancy; and there’s simply more people in that age group than ever before. 

While there is clearly legitimacy to all of those reasons, the issue is a lot more complex. Organizations don’t hire or keep employing people for personal economic, altruistic, or demographic reasons. If people in the senior age bracket are still getting or still have jobs, it’s because they possess skills the organization values. That, in turn, undermines the idea that a skills gap is simply about retraining and reeducating workers. 

When we talk about a skills gap, we are talking about more than just keeping up with technological change. We are talking about a range of capabilities that include emotional intelligence, adaptability, complex problem solving, and dozens of others. Essentially, we are talking about learning agility, and seniors who have been through the Civil Rights movement, the Cold War, the energy crisis of the ’70s, and the emergence of the internet have more of it than most. At last count, one in five domestic workers—many of them top executives, lawyers, doctors, and in specialized roles—were over age 65, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A rising 7% are already over 70.

Organizations are starting to realize that older workers are extremely valuable in the transition of knowledge to the next generation. Evidence also suggests that mixed-age groups tend to get along better and perform better than groups of the same age. Studies also suggest blending senior workers with younger ones spurs innovation. It’s no coincidence that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 42% of employed workers in 2016 age 55 and older were in management, professional, or related occupations, a somewhat higher percentage than that for all workers. 

There’s no doubt that the labor force is undergoing massive disruption. But addressing it is not as simple as old job out, new job in, or senior worker out, millennial worker in. Instead, organizations should be looking to design for skills overlap to solve the perceived skills gap riddle.