Survival in Tomorrow's Business World Means Closing the Skills Gap

An open book sits on a desk in a library.

There's a serious shortage of training for the most important jobs, and closing the skills gap that results will be essential to continued survival.

For years, financial executives have bemoaned the so-called "skills gap" between the most important and well-compensated positions in today's economy and the workers available to fill those positions. It seems to defy basic business theory, in that as salaries and other benefits go up for certain highly skilled jobs, workers do not flood the university programs and vocational schools that would help them to acquire those jobs. Clearly, closing the skills gap will be needed to maximize workforce productivity Ñ but the new scarcity of skilled work is becoming so dire that for some it could become an issue of basic survival.

The (Enormous) Scope of the Issue

CNBC quantified the problem in a survey of the modern workforce, finding that 46 percent of business presidents and CFOs believe that the workforce is not receiving the training they require to let businesses succeed. Though this awareness has existed for some time, it's now impossible to ignore the real-world impacts this skills gap is going to have; 63 percent of organizations contacted by CNBC reported that they already have difficulty filling skilled positions, and the problem is likely going to get worse as advanced tech becomes ever-more versatile.

So, the business world is scrambling to figure out how to deal with this problem before its leaders find the majority of their most ambitious ideas blocked by a lack of skilled labor. A general focus on STEM talent has not managed to fix the problem thus far, so the first order of business is to figure out which precise skills will be most in demand, and how to entice workers to actually learn them.

The Most Lucrative Skills of Tomorrow

It should come as no surprise that the primary skillset in question is computer science. The proliferation of jobs that require a working understanding of coding is skyrocketing, both for pure programming and more specific applications. It used to be that, with the exception of HTML and web-based languages, code was a tool for software development, used mostly by an elite group of incredibly well-compensated visionaries. On the other hand, the World Economic Forum found that now, like the spread of general literacy through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, computer literacy is becoming less a vocational skill than a prerequisite for all work beyond the lowest level of compensation.

Another area where firms are expected to have trouble closing the skills gap is the ability to crunch big data to provide leaders in business and finance with a leg-up in decision-making. This is highly related to the internet of things, which does much of the actual collection of data, but it's also distinct since big data analytics, which can produce useful insight from a mass of information, require more specialized "machine learning" coding skills. A notoriously difficult area of study, machine learning may become a highly sought-after computer skillset.

Another extremely important area for skills investment is cybersecurity. From protecting employee data from criminals to protecting business plans from industrial rivals to protecting customers from government snoops, modern cyber-security professionals have the skills needed to let the other aspects of a modern business succeed.

Invest Now to Thrive While Competitors Struggle

When communicating with the HR department, it's important for business leaders to provide the freedom to both encourage and incentivize training among workers. Some employees may seem too valuable to lose to training days, but a willingness to provide or finance on- and off-the-job education can be a huge incentive for workers to stay with one organization versus another. It can give workers a sense that their future is secure, which is needed in the modern climate, and create loyalty where none may have existed before. That will be an important leg up in a cutthroat financial world where headhunters compete for limited talent.

Business leaders also need to be active in communicating to universities and other training institutions exactly which skills they need most, so those bodies can in turn pass that information along to prospective students. It's not just about which stream computing science students choose to take, but also the level of mandatory technical education required of every student. The problem is workforce-wide, and so the solutions will need to be as well. The focus on skills has to begin before hiring and extend well after. There will likely never come a time when these employees have nothing left to learn.