The Cultural Nature of Valued Skills: A Qualitative Investigation of Postsecondary Science Education and the “Skills Gap” in Wisconsin

WCER Working Paper No. 2016-6

Ross J. Benbow and Matthew T. Hora

rjbenbow@wisc.edu

August 2016, 46 pp.

ABSTRACT: While the influential “skills gap” narrative assumes postsecondary programs should align more closely with employer needs—ostensibly to foster macro-economic competitiveness and assist graduates in the workforce—little empirical, qualitative research exists exploring perceptions of value and context linking important skills across higher education and career settings. Using field theory, ethnographic free lists, and inductive thematic analysis of interview data to foreground social and cultural meaning, this study investigates which skills educators and employers (n=145) believe are important as well as the different contexts that are perceived to influence skills’ value and prevalence in the state of Wisconsin. Results confirm the broad appeal of “noncognitive” competencies, or socio-emotional and self-regulation capacities that enable learning and performance. They also point to the significance of multiple contexts to skills valuation and the need for a more culturally oriented view of learned facility and transfer in postsecondary policy discussions.

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keywords: higher education, cultural capital, workforce, noncognitive skills, field theory, neoliberalism