Hiring: Skilled workers for skilled jobs

Is there a shortage of skills among American workers? How can there be 12.8 million unemployed people in the U.S. yet hundreds of thousands of jobs, particularly in manufacturing are going unfilled? If you read widely in the popular press, you will surelyskilled jobs wonder.

A number of stories lately, including in theA New York Times, andCNN Money, have reported that there is a yawning gap between the kinds of qualifications that employers seek and the experience of available workers applying for those jobs. TheA TimesA mentions a staffing firm in Oklahoma City, Express Employment Professionals where the CEO, Robert Funk, skilled jobs says he currently has 18,000 jobs he can’t fill. In the CNN Money story, Larry Davis, CEO of Daman Manifolds in Mishawaka, Ind., which makes parts for hydraulic valves, says he hasn’t been able to hire 10 workers who can operate Daman’s complex machinery.

Both theA TimesA and CNN piece describe applicants who simply don’t get the kind of training they need to land a job. Also, the CNN story quotes Kris Deckard, executive director of Ready Indiana, a workforce development project of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, who says some skilled jobs applicants are failing drug tests. Others refuse to fill out lengthy application forms and still others are nixed when they flub phone interviews.

But the notion that workers are really so wanting has been called into question lately. Ryan Chittum, a writer at theA Columbia Journalism Review, has run fourA storiesA that are critical of some of the coverage. He complains that one of the sources in theA TimesA story, Drew Greenblatt, owner of a small manufacturing company in Baltimore called Marlin Steel Wire, is an over-used mouthpiece for the political agenda of the pro-business National Association of Manufacturers, whereskilled jobs Greenblatt is an executive-committee member of the board, a fact theA TimesA fails to convey.

Also Chittum points out that there is such a huge pool of applicants, hiring managers can both keep wages low and be extremely choosey, frequently demanding qualifications that are impossible to meet. Chittum likes aA Detroit Free PressA piece suggesting the skills shortage is a myth, and rather a product of employers failing to offer any in-house training. The story quotes Dale Belman, professor of human resources and labor at Michigan State University, who says, “The perception of a skills gap is driven by reduced employer training and over-searching for the exact fit.”A USA TodayA also recently ran a story underlining how cuts in worker training programs have added to the skills skilled jobs gap.

TheA USA TodayA piece quotes Peter Cappelli, a Wharton School management professor and author ofA Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs,A who describes how training-averse companies want workers who can “hit the ground running.” TheA USA TodayA piece also describes a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) study showing that only 38% of companies say they cross-train their workers to develop skills not directly related to their jobs, down from 43% in 2011 and 55% in 2008 skilled jobs.

Wharton’s Cappelli is the main source for an excellent one-page piece byA The New Yorker’s James Surowiecki on the skills gap, that ran a little over a month ago and laid out the subject in a way that brings the coverage together. Employers are indeed complaining of a skills gap, but they are letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, as Surowiecki puts it. “Seeing an overwhelming number of applicants makes them less likely to pick one,” he writes. Companies’ inflated bargaining power in this job market, with its glut of available labor, has made it so employers can demand qualifications that no single applicant can meet. “In truth, companies increasingly want to hire only people who already have jobs–ideally, as Cappelli observes, people who have already done the exact job they’re applying for.”

In addition, much of the screening is now done by computers that toss out resumes that don’t meet pre-set criteria. Also Surowiecki underlines the training issue—how in 1979, young workers received an average of two and a half weeks of training, and now, according to a recent Accenture survey, only 21% of employees had received any training at all over the previous five years skilled jobs.

The big picture that’s affecting hiring is the persistently weak economy, where companies must be ever-vigilant about keeping costs down. That means they are not in a rush to hire, so they raise job standards and move slowly through the screening process. That in turn perpetuates a cycle of high unemployment, weak demand and, most importantly, reluctance to bring on new workers.

As always, you can count on EresumeX as your free job portal.

~Dawn Krovicka

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