Critical Thinking: The Economy’s “Other” Skills Gap

A lot has been written recently about the skills gap facing today’s economy. Researchers credit several sources for this phenomenon. First, the Baby Boomers will finally retire in droves over the next decade. Second, there has been a diminished interest in the hard sciences, resulting in a deficit of healthcare professionals and scientific researchers. Third, significantly fewer young people are choosing the skilled trades as a career. This is creating headaches for contractors, manufacturers and service companies. (It is also why we pay plumbers $100 just to walk through the front door.)

But there’s another skills gap that is dogging the productivity of virtually every organization in the US. That’s the deficit of critical thinking and problem solving skills among those entering the workforce. It’s what Nobel laureate Daniel Kahnemann calls “an invisible tax on the bottom line.” Ask the average employer. He or she will relate story after story of young workers who lack “common sense.” Translation? They do not possess the nuanced problem solving skills to perform their jobs independently.

Now, before I’m attacked by the Millennial hordes seeking my scalp, let me stipulate that there are millions in this generation who are contributing to our economy in amazing ways. But for every one of them, there is a multiple of those the same age lacking the basic thinking skills that will enable them to thrive in their jobs. Tragically this includes those both graduating from high school and college.

Responsibility for this phenomenon is shared among a number of sources: 1) The influence of digital technology, resulting in “menu-driven thinking,” defined as an over-dependence on digital cues; 2) The breakdown of the familial structure from which those in past generations learned norms and practices essential to the development of critical thinking skills and the confidence to use them; 3) Societal messaging focusing on convenience, immediate outcomes, and victimization. (“If I can’t figure it out, it’s not my fault. Something or someone else is to blame.”)

But playing the blame game will not resolve this issue. Neither will public policy. Billions of dollars have been spent on education legislation including No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. These have not, however, resulted in any measureable improvement in the problem-solving skills of those graduating from high school. Yes, many have been taught the principles of critical thinking. But here’s the thing . . . teaching students how to think critically does not produce critical thinkers. Compelling them to think critically does. Sadly, so much time is spent on content delivery in the average classroom, little time is left for application. Yes, they can pass the state assessments. But many struggle to thrive in the average workplace.

As much as employers might object to the added burden, it falls to them to correct this situation. This has to be accomplished in three ways:

Improve employee selection. I’ve written and spoken extensively on hiring over the years. What I hammer home each time is the use of practical applications during the screening process. Let’s face it, interviews don’t work. Compelling applicants to demonstrate their thinking skills is the closest you’ll get to ensuring an accurate evaluation of how they can perform on the job. Experiencing a shortage of applicants who meet these requirements? Hire the best you can find and be prepared to train and coach them from the get-go. At least you’ll know in advance where the work is needed.

Partner with local schools. This advice has been shouted from the rooftops for years, yet I am shocked at how few employers reach out in this manner. Want the best local people? Talk to those who teach them. If you don’t plant seeds, nothing will grow. I’ve met employers who have had great success acquiring good people just by being more present in the community. Buy a lunch. Teach a class. Serve on a workforce panel. Sponsor a contest. The ideas are endless. Over time, educators in the know will call you first when they spot top talent. (Note: In some cases there are publicly funded resources and incentives that will compensate employer for hiring and training for certain skills. These may be applicable to your needs. Local schools and agencies should be familiar with the requirements and processes.)

Train on critical thinking and decision skills from day-one. Just because they graduated from high school, college, or trade school, doesn’t mean they understand how work works. They have book smarts. You want work smarts. Some will arrive with it. Others, not so much. Assess their reasoning skills and build from there. Some will catch on faster than others. Some will possess more native confidence to try new things than others. Meet them where they are and stretch. One leader I know used to say, “Take 5’10” people and put them in 6’0” jobs. Remember, this is up to individual managers. All the training in the world won’t help if the supervision is inadequate. That’s up to organizational leadership.