The average sales rep today has to be much more than a Willy Loman type, “riding on a smile and a shoeshine”; he or she must also be a master of finance and product development. “Sales people are among the hardest to find,” Joerres says. “At the same time [that] their product is becoming more sophisticated to sell, you also now have to be more of a financial expert, because margins are reduced. You have to do deals yourself, do more of a consultative sell instead of just a relationship sell. Product cycles are shortened too, which means you have to refamiliarize yourself with the product catalog regularly. All of this has added to the complexity of the job.”
Nicholas Pinchuk, the CEO of Wisconsin-based Snap-on, which supplies automobile tools to 3,500 franchisees nationwide, says that as the number of computer codes in an average car has jumped from 200 in 1995 to 5,000 today, auto mechanics require the equivalent of an associate’s degree from a good vo-tech school. “Changing the headlight on a car used to be like changing a lightbulb. Now you have to apply a diagnostic tool, a kind of laptop for the car, that coordinates the lights with the control systems of the car, which for some cars means that high beams go on and off automatically or that the headlights move left and right as you go around a turn,” Pinchuk says. “Or take balancing tires. We used to be cavalier about it. But today, cars are lighter because of higher fuel economy. So tire balance is more important. You have to master the shape of the tires. Almost every tire has a high spot, and the rim has a low spot. To sense those, you need equipment skills and a general understanding of materials—for example, the different coefficients of expansion of aluminum and steel.”
With all that specificity cropping up in job descriptions, fewer young people heading into school know “what they need to study,” says Laszlo Bock, director of “people operations” at Google. “There is an information asymmetry.” So here, too, the market doesn’t seem to be adapting. And critics say that the Obama administration hasn’t put the right kind of programs in place to fix either the short-term mismatch or the longer-term college-education deficit. “We don’t even have a national jobs database,” Lund says.
LOOKING TO “OLD EUROPE” FOR IDEAS
Americans used to take great pride in the flexibility and dynamism of their economy, casting a cool eye on more-stagnant economies such as Germany’s, with its antiquated industrial-apprenticeship structure. But Germany’s unemployment rate of just over 6 percent is now well below the rate here, in part because of long-established government programs that underwrite corporate job training. It was no accident that when Siemens designed its Charlotte apprenticeship program, “we had a German employee come over and advise us,” Pringle says. “Siemens has a very extensive program in Germany.” (Notably, North Carolina is helping to underwrite Siemens’s Charlotte program, but the effortÍ has no federal funding.)
Meanwhile, many CEOs complain that the U.S. economy has become sclerotic with regulation. According to a recent World Bank study, the United States now ranks 27th in the world in the time it takes to approve construction permits, putting it right after Thailand. Lenny Mendonca, a McKinsey director, even suggests creating “enterprise zones” in certain U.S. states, emulating systems in Singapore and some African countries, to cut down on the plethora of often contradictory federal, state, and local regulations. All in all, he says, Americans need to have “less hubris, less of a sense that we know everything and are the benchmark for everything.”
Part of the American malady is the “rise of the rest.” Many more countries have become fiercely competitive in capitalism—a kind of ideological blowback from our preaching to the world for decades about capitalism’s virtues. The world listened, and now the U.S. can’t compete as easily as it did when much of the planet lived under stagnant communist regimes and creaky autocracies. And in the end, American business may be hurting itself inadvertently: Despite the tendency of employers to search out the highest-skilled workers, American hiring practices may be holding back innovation.
Because companies are pinching pennies, pushing workers to juggle more tasks and become more productive, fear rather than boldness dominates many workplaces. “Today, at many companies, it’s too much of a risk to walk into your boss’s office with an out-of-the-box idea,” says Cindy Szegedy, a former director of the Corporate Executive Board. “There is a palpable fear of upsetting the status quo.” Joerres says that businesses are operating so tightly that “employees don’t have much time to think during the day.” With less innovation, fewer new companies are started up or spun off, and fewer jobs are created.