Academic Literature

Skills – Not only are there difficulties in defining skill, there is no agreed classification of the types of skills observed

Not only are there difficulties in defining skill, there is no agreed Skills Gapclassification of the types of skills observed. Grugulis and Lloyd (2010, p.99) point out that there has been a ‘dramatic increase in the lexicon of skills’, while Thompson (2007, p.1364) comments that the ‘palette of skills’ has been widened ‘without normally deepening them’. The earlier focus on technical skills has been broadened to include soft or social skills (Lloyd & Payne 2009; Keep & Payne 2004; Grugulis, Warhurst & Keep 2004).

Lloyd and Payne (2009, p.631) argue that skill should have a ‘clear link to technical competence and knowledge’. However, Hurrell, Scholarios and Thompson (2013, p.164) claim that the concept of ‘technical skill is too wedded to the experience of trades with defined bodies of knowledge’, and that other types of skill need to be included in order to ‘handle contemporary questions of skill and skill formation in a largely service-based economy’. These have been described as soft or social skills.

Soft skills, frequently referred to collectively as social skills, include self-confidence, attitudes, communications, dispositions, problem-solving and appearance (Hurrell, Scholarios & Thompson 2013, p.165). Hurrell, Scholarios and Thompson (2013, p.179) claim that in certain situations soft skills can be ‘real’ skills, and not just qualities and abilities. There is little consensus about this, some writers arguing that extending the meaning may have a number of negative effects. These include contributing to declining discretion and pushing ‘the responsibility for their formation and application onto the individual worker and the education and training system’ (Grugulis & Lloyd 2010, p.102). In addition, it could encourage ‘hollow claims’ to be made about general upskilling in a knowledge economy (Hurrell, Scholarios & Thompson 2013, p.164). That is to say, if there are seemingly meaningless extensions of the notion of skill to include personal characteristics or capacities (soft skills), this may have a number of negative effects, including encouraging the unfounded claim of increased skill levels (upskilling) in a country.

Laffer (2004, p.118) argues that if attitude and discipline, for example, are redefined as ‘skills’, then ‘skill means nothing more than whatever employers want’; or, as the evidence of the research of Oliver and Turton (1982, p.198) implied, ‘“skill” is a “humpty-dumpty word”; it means just what the user wants it to mean.’

There are two ‘new’ conceptual frameworks for thinking about skill: generic skills and competence (Grugulis, Warhurst & Keep 2004, p.9). Generic skills are also called key, core, basic, transferable or employability skills. Some generic skills are ‘hard’ and ‘technical’; for example, information technology and numeracy, while others are ‘soft’, such as teamwork. One of the contentious issues regarding generic skills is that they are transferable across different occupations and are therefore context-independent (Keep & Payne 2004, p.58). An example would be problem-solving, which is quite different when the problems to be solved are complex, rather than when they are fairly routine (Grugulis & Lloyd 2010, p.100), or where an understanding of a particular context for each situation is required (Wheelahan, Buchanan & Yu 2015, p.6). More generally, the reason why generic skills are often contested is that there are several typologies and categorisations, some of which tend to be mutually irreconcilable (Grugulis, Warhurst & Keep 2004, p.14).

There is a belief that competencies are held by the individual, and are independent of context and environment. However, it has also been argued that competencies can be held collectively, for example, by a work team, and that they are ‘created and sustained by particular work environments’ (Grugulis, Warhurst & Keep 2004, p.15), and therefore ‘context-dependent’ (Guthrie 2009, p.22). The competence approach has been criticised as being inclined to neglect the importance of underpinning theory and knowledge (Grugulis, Warhurst & Keep 2004, p.9) and for the idea that competence can be ‘graded’ into different levels. A common assumption in competency assessment is that a person is either competent or not yet competent. The grading of competence has been a contested issue since the introduction of the approach (Guthrie 2009, p.25).

Vocational education and training (VET) is well placed to develop both technical (especially trades and related skills) and generic skills. The VET sector, rather than the universities, has the most to offer in these areas. Dalitz, Toner and Turpin (2011, p.154) argue that VET ‘should focus on providing people with the core skills for their particular vocation’ (as well as the ability to learn and adapt).

As in the case of the definition of skills, the categorisation of skills into various types is also contested and has shortcomings, in that the types identified are not discrete and lack comprehensiveness. Here too, there is a need for further research. As Keep and Payne (2004, p.71) point out, there are ‘many consequences, contradictions and conflicts that remain buried at the heart of skill’. Although it does not address the categorisation problem, a useful suggestion by the Organisation for Economic Co- operation and Development (OECD) is that ‘empirical studies linking data on stocks and flows of skills at the country and industry level to innovation indicators would provide valuable evidence to complement more theoretical discussions of skills for innovation’ (OECD 2011, p.11). However, as acknowledged by the OECD, further work needs to be done ‘to improve the data, better identify relationships and explore their strength and direction’ (2011, p.11). Another promising development is new research on ‘capabilities’ and ‘vocational streams’ (Wheelahan, Buchanan & Yu 2015).

Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story at  Skills needed for innovation: a review

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