Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Employers Can't Blame the Workforce

A remarkable number of observers have seen a "skills gap," in which the workers companies want are not available, not appropriately trained, and not suitable for filling their job openings.  As a result, many people have cited the number of unfilled jobs and said that we might not have such a problem with unemployment if only more people were qualified for the openings that often go begging for months or even years at a time.


There are always unfilled jobs.  There are always areas in which someone with the right credentials could get hired, even in the worst of times.  Yet nothing unusual is happening now... on the job applicants' side, that is. 

First, even if every advertised job in America today were filled with someone officially unemployed, the rate would still be about 7% - with no advertised positions at all.  Now that we have the idea of any gap causing our current problem, let's talk about what's happening when people apply for these positions.

Work's New Age Principle #6 holds that job ads no longer mean job hiring.  Standards have changed dramatically over the past ten years.  Almost anyone who looked for work both back then and more recently will remember how required qualifications have increased.  Ads that once had one paragraph, or five to ten bullet points, of required skills or experience now show two or three times that many.  Journalist Megan McArdle wrote in 2010 that "programmer jobs that once demanded anyone with a pulse and a C++ manual now require that you also have at least three years of experience designing websites for a fast food multinational, speak fluent Tajik, and be proficient in hacky sack."  Those seeking employment will see the same ads running month after month, will compare notes with others out of work in the same field, and find that they are not the only qualified ones who applied for these still-advertised position a long time before. 


The chief reason, during the Great Recession, was that business was often so poor that employers could afford to keep positions unfilled.  Since then, though, other causes have surfaced.  In yesterday's Room For Debate column in the New York Times, Peter Cappelli, a Wharton human resources professor, named other reasons, some of which I had published in Work's New Age and some not.  Cappelli said ( ) that hirers mostly wanted those working at similar jobs elsewhere, and that often they were simply not offering enough money, that not being able to "find the car I want at the price I want to pay does not constitute a car shortage."  He also mentioned "unreasonable" hiring standards, saying that many existing employees could not meet them for their current jobs (more precisely, they would not have been signed on before they got their exact experience by working there).  He then hits the Work's New Age issue of sharply reduced willingness to train people, saying that companies needed to look at the cost of leaving a position unfilled, and that if they couldn't even estimate that, they were "probably paying more attention to purchasing office supplies" than to human resources matters.  Finally, Cappelli correctly calls expecting schools to produce the workers they want without communication about it "a basic supply chain failure," and challenges employers thus:  "If you get through this test and still think there is nothing you can do to address your hiring problems, I’m happy to come out with some work force experts and a newspaper reporter to see if you are right."

I sympathize with employers who get a steady stream of workers lacking basic literacy and work habits, but not with those who expect good people to need neither competitive compensation nor specific training.  If employers loosened their standards, and went back to thinking of their workers more as "human resources" and less as "personnel," they would probably be more profitable in the long run.  And while the jobs crisis would not be greatly improved, more, maybe many more, people would be back to work.

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