THE BLOG

Do We Have the Grit to Close the Skills Gap?

08/14/2013 08:15 am ET | Updated Oct 14, 2013

The skills gap is real. To this statement there is little debate. What should generate great debate is how we close the skills gap, because the strategies currently employed ignore a pool of talent that would go a long way to solving this crisis.

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In Silicon Valley, the skills gap has created a war for talent, but the war is not limited to the Valley. It is felt across the country, in every region and across every sector. PwC recently released its annual CEO survey, which identified the "availability of key skills" as among the top four business threats to future growth. They are right to be worried. Despite 11.8 million people looking for jobs, there are 3.8 million jobs currently open as of this writing, and the situation is only expected to get worse. By some estimates, the United States will face a shortage of at least 14 million skilled workers by 2020.

Ironically, this gap exists, in large part, because we haven't defined key skills correctly. If you think about your best employees, aren't they the ones who work the hardest and who persevere through difficult times? Their technical skills are important, but don't those technical skills quickly become a threshold issue, a minimum requirement? Ask any hiring manager what they are looking for in an ideal candidate, and you will quickly hear words like grit, determination, motivation, persistence, adaptability and hard work, characteristics often described as "non-cognitive" skills by academics like the Nobel Prize winner James Heckman. Ask those same hiring managers how they source and identify such characteristics and you get...nothing.

We have it backwards. Because these non-cognitive skills appear hard to quantify and assess, employers' ability to source and identify them are woefully inadequate. As a result, these essential non-cognitive skills are overlooked disproportionately in favor of metrics like GPAs, test scores and degrees. As Google and others are discovering, these commonly used metrics are poor predictors of success when used in isolation. In fact, I would argue that these indicators are particularly ineffective for entry-level roles, where grit, adaptability and persistence really matter for one's ability to accept feedback, take on new roles and challenges, and grow into a seasoned professional. Employers are likely to find many more long-term, high-potential employees - often for less money than they currently spend on recruiting -- if we learned to ask the right questions and look in the right places.

We should derive many of the right questions from the important research conducted in the areas of growth mindset and grit, led by psychologists Carol Dweck and Angela Duckworth respectively. A growth mindset refers to a person's belief that his or her most basic abilities can be developed over time with enough effort. Whether instilled early in life or honed through life experiences, the manifestations of a growth mindset often are the very skills employers want but have a hard time identifying. Researchers like Dweck and Duckworth are breaking ground in our understanding and ability to identify motivation, grit, determination and persistence. What should be most encouraging is the fact that these skills are not in short supply. They can be developed, and there are millions of Americans who already have them, if we just broaden where we look.

Take Christian Ramos. He was introduced to technology as a young boy when he would help his uncle who was a janitor at IBM. Christian graduated from high school and, like so many of his peers who needed to help support their families, he worked as many hours as possible in retail. This left him little time for community college classes and far from a path that would allow him to work at IBM in a tech role, not just in IBM's building. Prior to joining our program, Year Up, he was 24 years old, underemployed, without a college degree or post-secondary credential and with little prospect of achieving either. Most employers would have passed over Christian without giving a moment's consideration to his potential in a corporate environment. That is their mistake.

Today, Christian works full-time on the IT team at LinkedIn, having previously spent six months there as a Year Up intern. As it turns out, Christian's struggles in life hadn't made him an unqualified candidate; they actually helped him develop the grit, adaptability and persistence that have propelled him through his early career. Christian's life experience, combined with the right training and opportunities, prepared him for success in the workplace.

Christian is not alone. There are 6.7 million talented young adults, known as Opportunity Youth, who are disconnected from the economic mainstream but are looking to combine real skills and real opportunity with their grit, determination and persistence. While we work to fix immigration and our educational system, we must engage the Christian Ramos's of this country, providing them training that maps directly to the jobs we need to fill now and in the short-term.

That is what we do at Year Up, working with more than 250 companies like salesforce.com, the Huffington Post, Facebook, eBay and JPMorgan Chase to give young adults, within a year, the technical, professional and business communications skills needed to get a job. In return, we ask these young adults to recognize the talents they have and the fact that their life experiences actually create a competitive advantage for them in the labor market.

Finally, for employers engaged in a war for talent, it is time for us to reframe how we think about, and value, someone's challenges in life. The very skills that allow young people to survive as they support their siblings while still a child themselves, or adapt to a new school environment every year while bouncing around foster homes, are often the same ones that employers are struggling to find in their applicant pools. It is time for us, as a country, to expand the definition of talent and key skills. If we do, the skills gap becomes far less vast.

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.