If I were to tell you we’re at full employment, save one very nasty problem, you’d probably laugh. It sounds ridiculous on the face of it – aren’t people still struggling out there looking for work? Aren’t wages still stagnant?
The answer, not the punchline, lies in the problem – a terrible “skills gap”, or lack of the right skills for the jobs which are out there.
I’ve been slow to come around to the idea of a skills gap, figuring that it was far from our worst problem. There is a free market, after all, and workers who want a job will find a way to beef up their resumes to show that they have the skills which pay the bills. Eventually it should all even out. But what happens if the job market utterly fails? That appears to be the situation.
There has been a lot of talk about a skills gap since the last official recession in 2008, and even some before. Little has been done to define exactly which skills the market is missing – and, in fact, it seems to shift around a lot. One day we’ll hear about a shortage of tradespeople like welders, the next a lack of certified technicians, and later a shortage of skilled salespeople. It doesn’t exactly make sense.
If we go to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) there is the ongoing Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) for hard data. It showed that in March there were 5.8 million jobs open, 5.3 million of which were filled. That’s a gap of 500k workers, which is serious enough. But it probably understates the problem, since not all needs for workers result in an immediately open job.
As reported before, there is evidence that there are about 1.4 million jobs left unfilled, enough to bring the headline unemployment rate down to 4.0% – essentially full employment.
With a problem this big, it should be a lot easier to pin down than the reports which are circulating. The Manpower Group publishes an annual report called the “Talent Shortage Survey” which reports a similar effect all around the globe across nearly every field you can think of. The highest reported shortages of qualified workers in their survey? It changes every year in every nation. It makes no sense at all. But they are adamant that there is a skills gap everywhere in the world.
With this much confusion, we can let the education system off the hook. There’s little for tech schools and community colleges to respond to in this nonsense.
So what’s wrong? Let’s start with the idea of “skills” on a resume to start with. It’s not as if companies have never been faced with this problem before. When Henry Ford first fired up his new assembly line he hired thousands of men right off of farms who had never assembled a car. No one had done it that way before, so he had to. The great glory of American manufacturing was born – the chance to learn on the job, demonstrate talent and moxie, and work your way up.
That’s not how the job market works today. Companies need someone for an immediate need, possibly one that has gone unfilled for far too long already. They can’t wait for someone to be trained on the job regardless of how sharp and hard working they might be. With loyalty out the window, an actual investment in a worker’s skills only makes them more portable – as well as capable of demanding a lot more money to stay.
With more “outsourcing” to smaller companies, the only consistent engine of job growth lately, companies hardly have the resources to make the necessary investment in people.
But this is hardly the only way in which the labor market is broken. Free markets thrive on information, and we should all expect that as word gets out that companies need a skill workers would find the training they need. But where is that information supposed to come from? Recruiters, aka “headhunters” could fill the gap, but they are driven by their bottom line of getting a warm body in the door quickly. They don’t have even the most remote incentive to pass on the word for what’s needed long term.
There was a time when unions played a big role in worker training, too – but those days are as long gone as good union jobs.
With all of these problems, who will fill the skills gap? It probably falls to government as do all market failures. Which is to say it comes down to yet another subsidy to business as yet another formerly corporate function is essentially socialized. But there is a great incentive for state and local government to match up workers to skills and a potential great payback in terms of growth and happiness among the population.
Given that we have such a large and persistent gap across so many fields it’s safe to say that no local government has created an effective system for doing so, probably because it would take a lot of as yet unidentified funding.
Where do we go from here? Without this very serious problem we would probably have full employment. It’s not a small matter at all, and it probably is the real solution to a lack of upward pressure on wages. It’s impossible to indict the education establishment because of a lack of good information and it’s hard to fault government for their inability to launch a massive systemic solution which has never been done before.
But one thing is clear – the labor market is broken. That happened for some good reasons related to the restructuring of the entire economy and a lack of support for the next economy. Getting us out of this predicament is the difference between a healthy economy that works for everyone and continuing weakness and frustration.
The next wave of innovation in business and technology probably has to come from government. That’s an interesting thing to demand in this crazy, contentious election year.