Closing the Skills Gap: Bringing the Language of Skills to the Future of Work | Maher & Maher
Maher & Maher, an IMPAQ Company - Investment Advisors for Talent Development.

Talent Talks

Closing the Skills Gap: Bringing the Language of Skills to the Future of Work

Listen to this episode:

  • Available on Apple Podcast
  • Available on Google Play
  • Available on Libsyn
  • Available on Spotify
  • Available on Stitcher

In this 30-minute episode, host Rick Maher is joined by Shannon Block, executive director of Skillful Colorado, who discusses how Skillful develops skills-based training and employment practices to help Americans get good jobs in a rapidly changing economy. Discover the innovative tools her team is using, including the Skillful Job Posting Generator, which allows employers to use skills-based hiring practices to attract the talent they need.

Episode Guest List:

Ms. Shannon Block is executive director of Skillful Colorado, where she and her team are working to bring a future of skills to the future of work. With more than a decade of leadership experience, Ms. Block is adept at bringing people together to solve complex problems. She helps her team think strategically about solutions and fosters a strong network of partners with a shared interest in strengthening Colorado’s workforce and economic development.

Prior to Skillful, Ms. Block served as president and CEO of the Denver Zoo; she currently serves on multiple boards.

Connect with Ms. Block on Linkedin or on her blog at

Full Transcript of this episode:

Introduction:      Welcome to Talent Talks. Each month, human resources veteran Rick Maher welcomes America's thought leaders to discuss ways to reinvent America's talent development and education system. Tune in and discover how we can drive global competitiveness for future generations. Talent Talks is presented by Maher & Maher and IMPAQ International, who together are delivering research and evidence-based solutions to workforce challenges. And now your host, Rick Maher.

Rick Maher:        Thanks for joining us today on Talent Talks, as we explore the world of talent development with our nation’s most prominent thought leaders on workforce and educational issues. Today we’re thrilled to welcome Shannon Block, executive director of Skillful Colorado. Shannon and her team are working to bring the language of skills to the future of work, and to deliver innovative solutions to help solve the nation's skills gap. Shannon, welcome to Talent Talks. Thrilled to have you here today.

Shannon Block: Thanks, Rick.

Rick Maher:        You know, I've been watching Skillful’s work for quite a while now. It's fair to say I think that you guys have created quite a stir in the workforce world. Most recently, I see you've expanded to Indiana with your unique solution, which I think as I understand it focuses on better assessing skills of employees or job seekers, and the skill needs of employers to find learning solutions that can rescale like a regional workforce to fill the gap. Do I have that about right? Can you tell us just a little bit, Shannon, what is Skillful? Tell us a little bit about the Skillful Solution.

Shannon Block: Thank you, Rick. So like, let's start with a statistic. 70% of Americans do not have a four-year college degree, right? So like that's the majority. I mean, I'm talking about like people that are working adults that could get a job. So Skillful is about developing skills-based training and employment practices, and accelerating their adoption to help the majority of Americans get good jobs in the rapidly changing economy. And when you and I were talking before, I was joking, but it's like if you're listening to this podcast and you’re like, "Oh, I'm so hungry for a hamburger, like I just have this craving," you pull out your phone, you can look up McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, there are different paths of how to get there. You can see how much it costs. You can see customer reviews. If you want to stop somewhere else along the way and like get gas, pick up your kids, go to Target, you can do all of that on your phone in like one minute.

Shannon Block: But if you want to find what path you should take after high school, it's like entering a black hole, and so that's crazy. So at Skillful, we envision this world where people can more easily access information and the education that they need to get a good job.

Rick Maher:        Whether or not that's college. And by the way, not only can you find McDonald's and Burger King and the rest, you can now have it delivered. You don't even have to get up off the couch. Right? So you know, you're right. It does seem like we should be able to bring that kind of technology set and solutions to helping a lot of people for whom college isn't necessarily the right answer. Right?

Rick Maher:        So it seems like you're suggesting that focusing on skills rather than maybe degrees, but focusing on skills and skills-based practices are kind of foundational to helping companies find talent today. You know, it's a very tight labor market. Is that right? And if so, can you help me understand how that's so. What's the magic in the language of skills for you guys?

Shannon Block: Yeah, so I am a self-proclaimed data nerd for sure. I believe, how can you manage what you can't measure? So at Skillful, we use data from like all different kinds of sources, from Emsi to Burning Glass, to determine how many job postings require a four year college degree compared to the number of people in those positions who have a four year college degree. So like let me give you an example in my town where I live.

Shannon Block: So if we look at executive assistants out there, 21% where I live do not have a four-year college degree, and a lot of them are really awesome. I've worked with them, I know this. And then I have other friends that are like, "Well, why can't I find a good executive assistant?" Well, 79% of your job postings are requiring a four-year college degree, so there's like a mismatch there. And you can see the same thing with like web developers. Okay? Where I live in Colorado, there's like 40% of people doing that job now, many which who are very qualified, they don't have a four-year college degree, but nearly all of our job postings are requiring it.

Rick Maher:        Requiring it.

Shannon Block: Yeah. So we're seeing the same trends across the nation. So degree inflation, or the practice of requiring a degree for jobs that don't require college level skills, it just worsens this skills gap. I think we can stop and reflect for a second and think, "Oh, well, why do we put that on there then? What does it mean?" And I think some people are like, "Oh, it shows grit or determination or ability to stick with something." Right? But I would argue, aren't there other ways of demonstrating that too? And isn't our job as an employer to describe the skills we need and then let candidates prove to us how they demonstrated those skills?

Shannon Block: And like college, college is great, right? It gives a lot of skills, like critical thinking and problem solving, but the reality is, there's like different pathways that people take to acquire those skills, and so I like to use data to better understand those pathways because that allows us to gain access to a larger talent pool.

Rick Maher:        First off, I love, and I've heard you talk about this concept of degree inflation, and as long as I've been around, it's just a blind spot for me, honestly, but I've never heard anyone use that term before, and I love it, Shannon, because in my travels throughout the country and working with regional teams on the workforce side, so many times I hear people complaining, "Well, the skills gap is employers, they're not paying enough or they're demanding for these degrees that they don't need," but I think it's really important to make the point that as workforce development professionals, if that's true, and you cite some data that seems to show that it is at least in a couple of places in your regional market, then it's part of our job in workforce development to educate employers and help them understand that. It sounds like with these data tools and your geekiness, Shannon, you're getting to a place where we can demonstrate things empirically to our employer customers, and in so doing, help them.

Rick Maher:        So I love that. I love the degree inflation thing. I love that you're giving people the tools to help us on the workforce development side and the educational community begin to educate our partners as employers on some of their practices that may be contributing to the gap, if you will. So that's really cool, and I think worth noting.

Rick Maher:        I know that Skillful is an initiative of the Markle Foundation, which is kind of cool. Big commitment there from philanthropy. And then it was launched first in Colorado, but this is key, with a $25 million grant from Microsoft. So obviously you've gotten someone's attention. I know you have a lot of other partners like LinkedIn and Walmart and more. My understanding is that through your work beginning in Colorado, Skillful has created like a series of, I think you'd call them digital tools, that help make working with skills easier for folks. Can you tell us a little bit more about that work and how these tools are making life easier for people?

Shannon Block: Sure. Yeah. We have very generous partners that have rolled up their sleeves to help tackle some of these difficult issues, which we were really appreciative for, and what we were finding ... So in Colorado, we've worked with like over 500 employers and a lot of the workforce centers, and when we were talking about some of these concepts, it was like, "I like it, I understand what you're saying, but how do I do it? Like how do I actually do this stuff?"

Shannon Block: And there's a lot of tools. I'm going to mention some of them, but I also think things are changing so fast, we need to stay focused on the problem, and we're going to iterate a lot and use a lot of different tools to attack that problem, and so that mindset sort of is important as we move forward. But to help people host skills-based jobs was a huge challenge, and so we invented at Skillful, for free, this Skillful job posting generator, and it's on our website at What it allows you to do, if you're hiring for a position, you can go in there and type in the name of what you're hiring for, and it sort of simplifies one of the first steps to hiring based on skills.

Shannon Block: So it's got like this easy-to-use design, a step-by-step process. It auto-populates different things, it gets rid of bias language, and it takes out some of the guesswork in some of these concepts that I'm talking about. Out pops a skills-based resume in like a minute. It's so helpful if you're like a hiring manager or a HR professional.

Shannon Block: The other tools that I really like that are really ... They're kind of basic, and we're using them in pilots now, and it's amazing to me that the market hasn't fully adopted them yet, is when we think about education or training facilities or colleges, there's these apps now. Like if I'm a college professor and I'm teaching a class to my students, I can take my agenda and I can shove it in this app, and like one second later it tells me all the skills I just taught my students. Like, whoo. Then I can press another button, and then out pops all the jobs across the United States of America that need those skills.

Shannon Block: So it's super basic, but I like the idea of the reverse engineering sort of capabilities of it. So if I'm a professor and I shove my agenda in there, and there was not a lot of skills being produced and there's not a lot of jobs after that require those skills, I might be able to tweak my program or add something to my curriculum to give students sort of that relevant skillset that they need to actually get a job after they're done with school. And so some of the tools, they're really basic, they're really fast, but they're sort of profound if we think about our own experiences and how different they would be if we had access to that information back in the day.

Rick Maher:        That's awesome. You talk about them as being simple. That's probably maybe the beauty behind them, actually, Shannon. I mean, I remember one of my iterations, it seems like back of the day the dinosaur, I was in the staffing industry. We did a huge study on why there were misplacements, why we make referrals to employers and find out that there weren't good fits or people didn't show up or fit the job, and we found that the greatest contributor to misplacements was a poorly written job description; that is, the posting or the ad for the job. I think that tool, the one you just described, is so useful to help employers structure an ad or a requisition for talent that isn't based on title but is based on skills, and that may wind up being very, very powerful contribution. That's really, really cool.

Rick Maher:        You know, I'm noticing, from your beginnings in Colorado, you now have somewhere on the order of I think 20 states engaged in Skillful. So I mean, your expansion is noted, and I read recently where Governor Holcomb of Indiana, who's also working with you now, called you a force multiplier for workforce development. I thought that was an interesting term, and I think actually quite a compliment. How do you see yourselves as a ... Why would the governor call you a force multiplier, Shannon? That's pretty cool. I mean, how can workforce centers innovate by applying the Skillful Solution?

Moderator:         You're listening to Talent Talks presented by Maher & Maher and IMPAQ International, who together provide research and evidence-based solutions integral to planning, developing, and managing America's workforce development system. For more information on what is being done to position America's workers, employers, and communities for future prosperity, sign up for our newsletter at That's

Shannon Block: That's quite a compliment. Thank you, Rick, for sharing that. I think it's, we work with a lot of partners that are willing to roll up their sleeves and tackle this issue, and the states of Colorado and Indiana are very sort of collaborative and innovative in nature, so the environment there has also supported our success.

Shannon Block: One of the things that we found is it really made sense to double down a little bit in the workforce centers across the state. So we work, like in Colorado for example, we work with coaches across all four corners of our state, and we bring them together to help them ... They sort of explain what they're currently doing, and then they learn best practices and tools from each other, which have sort of a multiplying effect. I will say that a lot of the dialogue that we have in that space, it's really a human-centered approach. So it's thinking about the individual job seeker, what are their wants and desires, and then sort of enters the skills-based conversation to help bridge that gap.

Shannon Block: I'll give you an example of a pilot project we have going on in Colorado on the west end. We're working there. There's a coal fire plant that's closing, and people were laid off. You can think about, you've had the same job for like 20 years.

Rick Maher:        For a generation, right.

Shannon Block: You get called in and they're like, "The plant's closing, and you need to get a new job," and you look around where you live, and you're like, "Okay, there's no more coil fire plants. Like, what do I do?" So you've been robbed of your personal power, it's like this horrible moment in your life, and so what we're trying to do is empower the system to ... and coaches and the whole environment to say, "Okay, how do we take that moment to reflect about who we are and where we want to be," and I think this skills-based conversation becomes very valuable, because just because you were in one industry doesn't mean your skills aren't transferable to another industry. So what we do is help provide also the tools to make that conversation a lot easier.

Rick Maher:        You know, one of the things I noted as I've gotten to know you guys a little bit, Shannon, through our talks, is that you are really ... the Skillful Solution is built from the ground up in a way. I mean, obviously, and I don't know if it's obvious, I should mention to our listeners that in the 20 state network, I noticed your point of entry in all these states is the governor. Pretty good place to start and gain a commitment from. But your solution is really from the ground up. I mean, you mentioned the tool for employers to write a better job description, for a professor to understand that although they're conveying a degree, they're also conveying transferable skills that may apply outside the specialty of the degree, and now to the actual coach in a workforce center who's working with that job seeker, that career switcher.

Rick Maher:        So you're not coming from the governor down, you're coming from the customer up, and that's different than some transformational approaches I've seen used in the workforce system. I think it makes this very powerful because it puts people on the front line. It gives them a vested interest in implementing and exercising the Skillful Solution. I just think that's really interesting and probably a key to your success, just as an outsider looking in. Very interesting.

Shannon Block: Thank you, Rick. You can't see me right now, but I'm doing like a little happy dance because that is-

Rick Maher:        Oh, good. I'm glad.

Shannon Block: ... exactly what we talk about, and so I appreciate your words around that.

Rick Maher:        Well, cool. That's good. I'm glad to give you time to make a happy dance. Before I lose you ... We're doing pretty well on time, but I don't want to stretch things beyond the time commitment you made to me, but I do want to turn this conversations really very specifically to outcomes from the employer's side, because, let's face it, Shannon, if you don't have outcomes that are measurable on the employer's side, you're not going to live up to the promise that I think Skillful has.

Rick Maher:        It sounds like though you have a solution that's doing that, that works for job seekers, but also and importantly, for employers. I'd like to give you a chance to break it down a little bit for me, and maybe share a story or an example of some kind of employer success or some kind of a solution you delivered to an employer that you may have worked for. Show us how Skillful manifests itself on the employer's side.

Shannon Block: Sure. So we are advocates of skills-based employment practices, including hiring, and it has benefits to employers like 30% more diverse candidates, faster hiring, and the people you hire are more likely to stay. And so we've worked with over 500 employers just in the four corners of Colorado, and I'll give you an example of some of the companies that we've worked with.

Shannon Block: So one guy was in a manufacturing company, and he's trying to hire customer service people, a key position for him. He started with this traditional job posting, and in a traditional job posting, it's like, "Okay, you have to have the four-year college degree, you have to have previous customer service experience in manufacturing exactly," and he puts it out in the market, and in this tight labor market, like no applicants, like none. Zero.

Rick Maher:        Yeah.

Shannon Block: And so when he ... He came to us and he asked for help, and like you could come to us, but now you could just go online at yourself for free and use the job posting generator, and he switched to taking the degree off the job posting, and he lifted the skills that were needed, and the result was he ended up hiring these retired teachers that wanted to get back in workforce. Because think about it, like they have the skills of listening and patience and dealing with people with all these different needs that are like all over the place, but they're very professional and positive.

Rick Maher:        Yeah. Great communication skills. Right.

Shannon Block: Exactly. And so it turned out to be a great fit for him. I'll give you another example just to sort of paint the picture a little bit more. So we had another employer was trying to hire a mechanical engineer, and so they did the traditional job posting, four year college degree. Oh, let's have the degree in mechanical engineering, and you have to have prior manufacturing experience. A direct fit, right? And again, no applicants. So they changed their practice. They did a skills-based job posting, and they ended up hiring a former diesel mechanic that didn't have a bachelor's degree but ended up being a perfect fit for the job.

Shannon Block: And so when we think about the future, and especially the statistics in the next like two to three years, we've got all these jobs being created, we've got limited population growth, we've got a bunch of people retiring. You know, the way we view it is human capital development is economic development, and skills are the new currency.

Rick Maher:        Yup. That's amazing. That's a great story. And I love it, because it brings it down to a place where people can understand it, and kind of makes it empirical, and those are the kinds of stories we need to be able to share with employers to get them to understand that some of their practices are actually self-defeating and it hurts both sides of the equation. That's great stuff. That's really why, Shannon, I wanted to get you guys on Talents Talks. I mean, I've been watching what you're doing. I didn't understand it all, but I knew it was starting to spread and was showing some major results, and I just felt like a lot of people have heard about you in workforce but maybe don't quite understand the depth of what you're bringing to the table. So this is awesome, and that's a great story to share.

Rick Maher:        I talk about this a lot, so I'll apologize to the listeners for doing it yet again. We're in a world right now where we hear about AI and robotics and automation, how it's going to disrupt labor markets and the so-called fourth industrial revolution, and all the doomsday discussions that are out there about the disruption that's waiting in the job market. And it seems to me that we're going to have to have new and different ideas in the face of the new technologies to find the opportunities in it. It sounds to me, it seems me like Skillful may be really a key part of that solution, is be disruptive on our own in terms of the potential disruption coming our way.

Rick Maher:        I don't want to sound too hokey here. I get accused of being hokey a bit, admitted, but it sounds like you guys are out there trying to preserve the American dream or something, Shannon. I mean, is that what you're trying to do at Skillful? Are you trying to preserve the American dream?

Shannon Block: So Rick, like, what is the American dream, right? Like I think about when I was growing up, there's this vision, you get your 2.5 kids, you get your four year college degree, you get a job with a company, you have a career for life, and it's like this linear path. Who's that? Like, who are these people? Why did we come up with this thing? It's so strange, right?

Rick Maher:        Yeah.

Shannon Block: So I want to go back to our stats. 70% of America does not have a four year college degree. That's the majority of people.

Rick Maher:        Right, yup.

Shannon Block: So I would say like, what's their American dream? Is it in their reach? And going back to the beginning of our conversation, let's not make this abstract. How come I can get a hamburger in a second but I can't figure out what I'm supposed to do after high school?

Rick Maher:        After high school.

Shannon Block: And so at Skillful, we work to create transformative change at a system level to bring the future of skills to the future of work for real Americans. And we know in our lifetime, like you talked about AI and machine learning, entire industries are going to disappear at this pace that we've never seen before, so we need like this simple and big thinking to better navigate our own American dream. Like let's break it down, let's customize it in a way that supports individual navigation.

Rick Maher:        Well, I got to tell you, I think it's just ... Somewhat, to some degree, the beauty of this is in its simplicity, Shannon, and I think you're so right. I mean, if we can start to think about skills instead of job titles or even industry specialization, we give people the power to believe that they can handle these life transitions if their industry is disrupted, that it isn't the end of the world, and it doesn't mean they have to go back to college to put food on the family table. I think that we can lead the conversation not only for job seekers but also for employers where the rubber meets the road. When they understand that it's better for them to talk the language of skills than titles or even degrees, they get a better chance of finding that retired teacher that is actually the best possible fit for them but they just didn't understand.

Rick Maher:        So you guys give people the ability to have those conversations on both sides of the equation, and your story is so compelling, and this is perfect because what I wanted for our listeners at Talent Talks today was for them to be exposed to what Skillful's doing and to have the opportunity to get engaged and to follow you as you continue to make a difference. I want to thank you again for your time today. You've been amazing. I could go on, but we're running short of time. But again, I wanted to connect you to the broader workforce system, and what if there's a listener out there that is in one of the 20 states you're involved with, or maybe not yet in one of the states involved with Skillful. If I just want to connect with you and keep track of your progress, how, as a listener, would I best do that, Shannon? How can I stay connected to Skillful?

Shannon Block: so Rick, first, thanks for having us on here. Love the work that you're doing with these podcasts, and keeping us thinking differently about the future and how to keep the new American dream alive.

Rick Maher:        There you go. Yup.

Shannon Block: They can get involved. Probably the easiest way is to go to We are also on Twitter, LinkedIn, @JoinSkillful, and I'm also on Twitter @ShannonBlock. I do try to respond to every inquiry, and I would love to hear people's success stories. These are sort of simple ideas and simple tools, but they can have big effects for individuals, so if you share your story with me, I'm happy to retweet it so I can share it with others.

Rick Maher:        That's awesome, Shannon. I expect you're going to see a few new followers at least as a result of the investment of your time today, and again, I want to thank you and I want to thank Skillful generally for the contributions you're making and for the investment you've made in talking to our listeners today. Thanks so much.

Shannon Block: Thanks, Rick.

Rick Maher:        So folks, until next time at Talent Talks, this is Rick Maher thanking you for listening and reminding you that at Talent Talks we hope to explore, inform, and inspire you, because we are all actors in a global war for talent, one where talent is seen as the new global currency and you are America's talent investment bankers. So we hope we've inspired you to take a risk and then make a difference. We hope you'll dare to be great. You can break something, make it better, or try and fail, but for God's sakes, fail fast and try again. Thanks again for listening and have a great day. We'll see you next month on Talent Talks.

Moderator:         Thank you for listening to Talent Talks presented by Maher & Maher and IMPAQ International. For more information on what is being done to position America's workers, employers, and communities for future prosperity, sign up for our newsletter at That's

Return to top of page

Podcast Updates