Swiss Cheese Argument for School Reform: Add Another Hole

The prevailing rationale for school reform for the past thirty years, repeated by Presidents Ronald Reagan, George Herbert Walker Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, is that there is a skills mismatch between what employers need in an information-based economy and graduates coming out of U.S. schools.


That lack of math,science, and technical skills among high school graduates means that employers cannot find job-seekers, just out of school or unemployed experienced workers, who can fill vacancies. Unfilled vacancies leave companies elsewhere grabbing a larger share of the market for goods and services that U.S. firms could produce. If schools would do their job of preparing skilled graduates, the three-decade old argument goes, then the economy would be stronger.

Politicians and policymakers focus on the skills mismatch because the problem can be fixed: more math, science, and technology in elementary and secondary in U.S. schools. In this way, students have the knowledge and skills to enter the labor market, get decent-paying jobs, and contribute to an ever-changing domestic and global economy.  That unrelenting and unchallenged rationale for school reform, however, just developed another leak.*

Blaming schools for a skills mismatch is convenient and historical–remember that business and civic reformers pushed vocational education into U.S. schools over a century ago because of a so-called skills gap–but misses the central role that employers play in hiring new graduates and the unemployed.

According to University of Pennslyvania’s  Peter Cappelli  in his recent book Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs,  the skills mismatch argument of the past thirty years is shot through with holes. Cappelli says:

There is no “mismatch” between the industries and occupations where people were laid off and where hiring is taking place…. Jobs have not changed over the last couple of years in any way that changed skill requirements substantially. The “failing schools” notion, even if it was true, couldn’t explain the continued unemployment of the majority of job seekers, who graduated years ago and had jobs just before the recession.

He emphasizes that employers are to blame, not schools. Yes, those who do the hiring. How can that be?

Cappelli has story after story of companies using complicated algorithms that screen out job seekers with requisite skills, paying low wages, and offering no on-the-job training. Employers, awash in applicants, don’t fill their vacancies and seldom calculate the opportunity costs of not filling the jobs.

Some examples:

*Employers only want experienced job seekers. The software many employers  use screens out people who have the knowledge to do the job but have no experience or lack a perfect fit for jobs with narrowly drawn requirements.  A firm advertises for an entry-level engineer and gets 25,000 responses. They couldn’t find the right engineer. Cappelli’s favorite example : the absurdity of this requirement was a job advertisement for a cotton candy machine operator – not a high-skill job – which required that applicants ‘demonstrate prior success in operating cotton candy machines.’  The most perverse manifestation of this approach is the many employers who now refuse to take applicants from unemployed candidates, the rationale being that their skills must be getting rusty.

In a labor market where employers have their pick of the crop, they shoot themselves in the foot by screening out able and qualified applicants.

*Not filling vacancies have costs that employers ignore:

Cappelli: If I were an employer, I would first begin… to ask if I know what it’s costing me to keep a vacancy open…. Do I know what it’s costing me to train somebody versus hiring somebody and chasing them on the outside? If you have answers to those questions, you start realizing that it does cost something to keep vacancies open. Searching forever for somebody — that purple squirrel, as they say in IT, that somebody who is so unique and so unusual, so perfect, although you never [find] them — that’s not a good idea.

*Unlike a few decades ago, most employers do not train entry-level employees.
Cappelli: What employers are complaining they can’t find now are not things the schools can deliver. They want work-based skills. They want the kinds of things that you can’t learn in a classroom. How do you manage a team of people? How do you implement this particular software? And we shouldn’t expect the schools to try to do that. It’s not very efficient. It’s much easier to teach somebody as an apprentice in the field.
Cappelli believes that employers need to loosen job requirements (and web-based software that screens out fine candidates) and offer paid internships and on-the-job training–as some employers still do.

There are already holes in the argument that high school graduates’ skills are mismatched to employer needs. Peter Cappelli adds another.



*Some historians have critiqued this reform-driven argument for linking the economy to better schooling. See Lawrence Cremin, Popular Education and Its Discontents (1989) Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson, The Education Gospel (2004), Larry Cuban, The Blackboard and the Bottom Line (2004), and David Labaree, Someone Has To Fail (2010). Also see posts here and here.


Filed under school reform policies

6 responses to “Swiss Cheese Argument for School Reform: Add Another Hole

  1. Those same issues are echoed on my side of the border as well, and while there are no clear answers on the economics I fear that sometimes it draws attention away from two other reasons why we need to pay attention to what we are doing in our schools. While I will not argue against the fact that a principal reason while we have schools, is to prepare people so that our economy remains strong, I will always add that there are at least two other, equally important reasons:
    1-yes, agreed, students need to learn skills so that they will be productive members of our economy and we need to keep a constant, vigilant eye on the policies and institutions we build to support this.
    2–students have to master the skills and adopt attitudes that are conducive to a strong, just, and worthwhile society. This means they need to learn the basics of leadership, justice & government and be prepared to offer the gift of self in service to not just themselves but to society at large.
    3–students have to master life skills and adopt attitudes that are conducive to the sense of a worthwhile personal life.

    It is my fear that, increasingly, schools are abdicating (probably for a host of reasons both intended and unintended) the responsibilities for #2 and #3 to other groups including the family, the community at large and the various churches. I’m not, for a minute, saying that family, church and unofficial community support is unnecessary. Seriously–that would be stupid! I am saying, though, that the federal, provincial/state and municipal governments also need to play a serious role and one of the best places for this is through the sanctioned curriculum.

    Larry, I know that, as usual, I’m just a bit off topic. :>) It’s just that I do enjoy your posts, feel that they have value even in Canada and think that just a ‘like’ doesn’t go far enough to show my gratitude for the opinions and information you share.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you, Maurice, for your comments and comparisons/contrasts with schools in eastern Canada. Your perspective (and experience) I find helpful in thinking about school reform and classroom practice.

  2. Philip Crooks

    Here in Australian we have a”skill shortage” due to the mining boom. It seems we at school are not producing welders boilermakers engineers and a host of other skilled tradesmen. Of course it would never occur to employers to train people it is easier and cheaper, that’s the point, to import workers on short term visas from third world countries.
    Not really relevant to the point but I think its is worth noting. In the U.K where I from during the oil shock of the early 1970,s many employers laid off many workers and apprentices . In Germany though they actually employed more apprentices because they knew that when economies began to recover they would need skilled workers to meet the demand.
    Sadly here in Australia the U.K. and so it would seem in U.S.A accountants have too great a say.
    Philip Crooks
    PS I really enjoy your blog keep up the good work.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you, Philip, for commenting on the post and connecting your experiences in Australia and UK. Researcher Stephen Hamilton has argued for an apprenticeship system through schooling for decades–as have other academics, employers, and educators–but they have been a small minority.The career/tech academies in high schools and community colleges are expanding slowly but the call for everyone to go to college dampens large-scale movement in that direction in the U.S.

  3. As a high school math teacher, I often argue that it would be more beneficial, often, to offer more useful math to students rather than more academic math. A true course on the mathematics of your personal economic life, in many students’ circumstances, would be more beneficial than Pre-Calculus, which generally serves no one in “real life,” other than as preparation for success in Calculus.

    However, I would also like to address the employers’ positioning and purpose in this debate: Carnevale and Desrochers (2003) concluded that the skills necessary for college were the same skills required in the workplace. This has been supported by ACT and Achieve, Inc., among others. Steen discovered that college and career preparation were not the same: “In high school, more advanced tends to mean more abstract, not more applicable. That’s because the academic curriculum aims at college. Employers, however, see a frustrating paradox: even though students have studied more mathematics in high school, they graduate deficient in middle school skills such as percentages, decimals, and ratios that are prerequisites to successful employment” (2007). Bracey (2006) reported levels of education as one of the least important attributes employers are looking for in potential employees. Being older and consequently more mature, having a good attitude, being serious about work, and being personable were all significantly more important than academic skill requirements. Bracey pointed out that employers are often simply not looking for recent high school graduates because those applicants need to develop a resume of work experience that has taught them the skills required of employment, which people learn at work rather than in school.

    So, I question whether the business world is not actually publicly sacrificing education in order to capitalize in some other manner. One such concern may be in order to ship jobs out of the country. If the argument could be believed that American education is lacking, businesses can understandably be being forced to find labor elsewhere. This is most likely not the case, however. Additionally, Bracey’s claims on the skills truly sought after by employers precludes almost all high school graduates from qualifying for most positions.

    I agree with the premise of your discussion: schools are not to blame and most likely could never fulfill the needs as described by business leaders. Thus, reform is less necessary on these grounds than it would seem, and the assault on education from this vantage point misses the target.

    • larrycuban

      Brett, thanks for your comment on the post. Citing Gerry Bracey’s argument that employers seek “soft skills” (the ones you mentioned) among graduates is consistent with Peter Cappelli’s argument. Bracey, Cappelli,and others who have said for decades that employers use as a proxy for these soft skills the high school diploma, community college associate degree, bachelor’s degree, etc. I was struck by Cappelli’s point because, in challenging mainstream wisdom about sparse hiring at a time when many job vacancies do not get filled, he lays out the strategies that employers used to follow but do not do so now. It is simply easier to point at the schools rather than at software programs that yield few candidates, restrictive hiring practices and the lack of on-the-job-training.

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