Skills Gap vs. Education Gap

Historic unemployment rates have brought significant attention to the “skills gap.” The Skills Gap is the difference between the number of available skilled jobs compared to the number of skilled workers available to fill those jobs.

One of the main contributors to the gap is the “craftsmen” working population is retiring in droves. Another contributor is the lack of people in the workforce.

The Oklahoma Secretary of Commerce, Sean Kouplen, recently shared that there are more than 145,000 job openings in Oklahoma. He went on to say that only 61 percent of Oklahomans are in the workforce. With statistics like these, it’s not hard to understand why the gap exists.

One challenge gaining attention as a skills gap contributor is the number of high schoolers entering college ill-prepared for the demanding curriculum. However, this challenge pales in comparison to the reality that only around 50 percent of high school graduates go on to post-secondary education.

Fifty years ago, a high school diploma meant a person was job-ready. This is no longer the case.

Some high school graduates attend career-tech, others join the military, and a small percentage attend private and out-of-state colleges. However, too many of our youth are graduating from high school without a skill, which leads to dead-end jobs. I refer to this as the “education gap.”

We must first fill the education gap if we want to supply the skills gap. Our traditional systems aren’t doing the job sufficiently, and unfortunately, this is not a new issue.

In 2002, a group of local dentists approached Tri County Tech because they were struggling to find dental hygienists. After a little research, we discovered this was a state-wide problem, especially in rural Oklahoma.

We were eager to help, but there was a barrier. To become a dental hygienist meant earning a degree, and Oklahoma Technology Centers do not issue degrees. If we were going to help our community solve the workforce issue, we needed to innovate.

In a matter of thirteen months, we partnered with the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center to bring a degree training program to Bartlesville. The two organizations agreed to share facilities, share faculty, and use distance learning technology to deliver instruction between Oklahoma City and Bartlesville. The program has since expanded to the Ardmore and Weatherford communities.

Together, the University of Oklahoma and Tri County Tech have graduated 154 students. The average annual salary of the 2019 class was $76,800.

Addressing the skills gap means addressing the education gap, and that means getting more youth in the post-secondary pipeline.

For this to be accomplished, more partnerships between tech centers, community colleges, and universities need to be created. Partnerships between these entities would ensure a seamless transition from k-12 to career-tech to college. The use of distance technology can bring talent and expertise from one part of the state (or the world) to another where resources may not exist. Distance learning can be done at a fraction of the cost of providing human capital.

The use of distance technology at the k-12 level can provide access to high school courses that aren’t available in some parts of the state. Access to these courses will help increase the pipeline of students into career-tech and college. Distance learning can also be used to bring concurrent college offerings to high school students allowing them to earn college credit in high school. The use of technology and the sharing of educational resources is an opportunity for Oklahoma to make significant strides in closing the education gap and, ultimately, the skills gap.

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