It’s a difficult concept to grasp — that at a time of massive unemployment, good paying jobs remain unfilled.
And yet despite unemployment in nearly 30 states running 8 percent or higher, nearly 2 million jobs remain vacant because employers can’t find enough qualified workers.
Earlier this year, I wrote a piece of the Business2Business Magazine about the growing gap between the skills of the unemployed and the skill requirements of the jobs. These issues were also discussed in a recent article in theNew York Times on job retraining and another article in USA Today.
What’s the basic problem? A Washington Post article suggests that maybe it’s job retraining that needs to be retooled.
Some high unemployment America faces today is cyclical, meaning
that hard times wiped out jobs that will be restored when conditions
improve. But many of the job losses this time were structural – we just
don’t need them anymore or other countries can do them better or cheaper
or both. So the difference between this economic recovery and those in
the past is that this time there is a dramatic mismatch between the
kinds of jobs that millions of Americans have historically held and the
kinds of jobs that we will generate moving forward.
Traditionally we addressed this problem by advocating worker
retraining. No unexpectedly t is a cornerstone of the Obama
administration’s jobs policy. In 2009, the Department of Labor spent a
little more than $4 billion on adult workplace training; about one-fifth
of that came from the stimulus package. Millions of Americans are
undergoing such training every year in an effort for them to go back to
And what are workers being retrained to do? It seems that a
significant portion of the money is focused on “green jobs” and
health-care industry jobs. But the Times article makes clear that
current job retraining is inadequate, and hints that it may never really
So why doesn’t the training produce its intended results? The
Times grabbed the easy answer: “Because there are no jobs.” That might,
indeed, be the major reason, but before endorsing it,
the Washington Post article offers several other theories:
The shortages aren’t real. When medical organizations
speak of shortages, they are measuring current workforce levels against a
theoretical number per capita. Just because health professionals say
they need more employees doesn’t mean that the market has the capacity
to support them.
There’s a personality gap. The unemployed generally have overbearing and unpleasant personalities.
That’s at least a reason offered by actor-comedian-economist Ben Stein,
“The people who have been laid off and cannot find work are generally
people with poor work habits and poor personalities.” Stein suggests,
“that high schools and colleges should have a course on “how to get
along” and “how to do a day’s work.” (That might help with future Gen Y joblessness but what about the 7 million unemployed workers 35 years and over.)
There’s a geography gap. Economists have noted that
while capital and physical goods are easily moved from stagnant to
productive places, people are much less so. In the short term, it’s not
easy for unemployed people to move to where jobs might be, especially
when many of their mortgages and home values are upside down.
There’s a gender gap. Rationally, any well-paying job
should be attractive to any needy worker. But the nation has suffered
from a shortage of nurses for decades. Today more young men are willing
to enter nursing as a career. But what about out-of-work males in their
40s and 50s who worked in male-dominated industries like manufacturing,
construction, IT, and engineering?
Our training is really lousy. Governments and business
leaders want unemployment to go down; community colleges want federal
grants to provide workplace training; companies want skilled employees;
and unemployed workers want jobs that pay well. So what’s the problem?
Maybe – just maybe – we need to stop training skills that businesses
past their prime and out-of-work adults want and start training the
skills that will produce the growth the economy needs.
And maybe we need to take a serious look at retooling job
retraining before we can re-equip unemployed workers with the skills
they need to get good paying, stable jobs.