Why Jobs Go Unfilled Even in Times of High Unemployment

Companies say too many applicants just don’t have the right skills. Partnerships between employers and community colleges are looking to fix that.

Three Alamo Academy graduates, now Lockheed Martin employees, in front of an engine for the U.S. Air Force's C-5 plane. The Alamo Academies are part of a public-private partnership that trains select high-school students, lets them earn college credits, and provides many with high-skilled jobs as soon as they graduate from high school. 
National Journal
Amy Sullivan
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Amy Sullivan
Aug. 16, 2013, 10:50 a.m.

Skills for Amer­ica’s Fu­ture, a policy ini­ti­at­ive run out of the As­pen In­sti­tute, was cre­ated in 2010 as a spin-off of Pres­id­ent Obama’s Jobs Coun­cil and was ori­gin­ally led by long­time Obama sup­port­er Penny Pritzker. With Pritzker now in­stalled as the new Com­merce sec­ret­ary, As­pen an­nounced earli­er this week that the skills-train­ing pro­gram will con­tin­ue with ex­ec­ut­ives from Snap-On and Gap at the helm.

In the wake of that news, Na­tion­al Journ­al talked with René Bryce-Laporte, the out­go­ing pro­gram man­ager for Skills for Amer­ica’s Fu­ture, about the chal­lenges of train­ing work­ers in an eco­nomy where em­ploy­ees can ex­pect to de­vel­op new skills con­sist­ently throughout their ca­reers — even if they have the in­creas­ingly rare ex­per­i­ence of stay­ing in the same field or even with the same com­pany. Bryce-Laporte has spent more than 15 years work­ing in policy and ad­vocacy around the is­sues of provid­ing so­cial and eco­nom­ic op­por­tun­ity to low- and middle-in­come Amer­ic­ans. Ed­ited ex­cerpts of the con­ver­sa­tion fol­low. 

The U.S. has an un­em­ploy­ment rate over 7 per­cent, yet as we’ve been trav­el­ing around the coun­try, we con­stantly hear from em­ploy­ers that they can’t fill po­s­i­tions, par­tic­u­larly those that re­quire high­er skills. How is that pos­sible?

One of the reas­ons Skills for Amer­ica’s Fu­ture was star­ted was that the Jobs Coun­cil kept hear­ing from em­ploy­ers con­cerned that they had jobs re­main­ing open be­cause they couldn’t find work­ers with the skills they needed. The idea was to cre­ate an ini­ti­at­ive to work with com­munity col­leges, and to pro­mote part­ner­ships between them and busi­nesses to match edu­ca­tion and train­ing to em­ploy­ment op­por­tun­it­ies.

The pre­cise num­ber of jobs that re­main un­filled is elu­sive, but we know that the num­ber is high. Now, jobs some­times go un­filled be­cause of nat­ur­al fluc­tu­ation in the work­place — some­body leaves a job and it stays open for a few months. There are some ob­serv­ers who say that the idea of a skills gap is over­stated, that va­can­cies per­sist be­cause em­ploy­ers can’t find people with the skills they need at the rate they’re will­ing to pay. But it is true that em­ploy­ers com­plain they have a hard time find­ing work­ers with the skills they need. About 40 years ago, only one in four jobs re­quired more than a high school edu­ca­tion, but now about two in three jobs re­quire more train­ing. And work­ers now really need to think of learn­ing as a lifelong task. That’s a huge shift from the days when you did one job that nev­er changed for one em­ploy­er and then you re­tired.

Work­ing in a fact­ory re­quires a dif­fer­ent kind of skill than it used to — the same is true in ag­ri­cul­ture, even. I serve on a board in Arkan­sas, and we went to a town in the Delta that has a farm that used to have a couple hun­dred people work­ing in the field. Now it em­ploys two people, op­er­at­ing all the ma­chines.

I’ve seen some sur­veys with em­ploy­ers who talk about prob­lems find­ing work­ers with tra­di­tion­al work­place skills — show­ing up to work on time, hav­ing ba­sic lit­er­acy, need­ing work­ers who can prob­lem-solve. That’s not new tech­no­logy in play — some em­ploy­ers have al­ways com­plained about these skills be­ing ab­sent.

It’s in­ter­est­ing that you men­tion those ba­sic skills, be­cause it’s def­in­itely not what we think of when we hear “job train­ing.”

Yeah, those are some of the job-read­i­ness skills that some people still over­look. There are em­ploy­ers who now work with com­munity col­leges to de­vel­op cer­ti­fic­ates that help show that a work­er is ready. The Na­tion­al Ca­reer Read­i­ness Cer­ti­fic­ate ba­sic­ally tests those kinds of skills I was talk­ing about — can they read for in­form­a­tion, loc­ate in­form­a­tion, do math? The stand­ard­ized test is ad­min­is­trated by the test­ing ser­vice ACT and eval­u­ates a stu­dent’s pre­pared­ness for the work­place. Bison Gear, a man­u­fac­turer in Illinois, makes sure all of its em­ploy­ees have passed the NCRC as a re­quire­ment of em­ploy­ment.

So when we talk about more train­ing or edu­ca­tion, it doesn’t ne­ces­sar­ily mean get­ting more people through four-year col­leges.

That’s right. Not every kid has to be ready to go to Har­vard or Columbia or Michigan. More train­ing could mean a pro­fes­sion­al train­ing school. Or com­munity col­leges, which are great places to go to get a de­gree or spe­cial­ized skills that are of value to an em­ploy­er.

The av­er­age dis­trict tu­ition and fees for com­munity col­leges is $3,130 per year while state school tu­ition and fees are now $8,660 each year. So the cost is not noth­ing, but it’s much more af­ford­able, and par­tic­u­larly if you’re tar­get­ing cer­ti­fic­a­tions. Al­most half of com­munity col­lege stu­dents re­ceive fin­an­cial aid. And there are em­ploy­ers who will sub­sid­ize the cost of school for work­ers.

One of the chal­lenges of skills train­ing is the fluid­ity with which people change jobs and ca­reers these days. It’s not just a mat­ter of get­ting train­ing one time and then be­ing set for a lifelong ca­reer.

Even if you stay in the same ba­sic field your whole life, things are go­ing to change. A smart em­ploy­er is go­ing to fig­ure out how em­ploy­ees can de­vel­op and ad­apt to meet those changes. Some­times that can be done onsite with the com­pany. Many em­ploy­ers — though not enough of them — are part­ner­ing with post-sec­ond­ary schools to help build a work­force with the skills that they need, even set­ting up spe­cif­ic classes. Some­times that’s to train new work­ers, but of­ten it’s tar­geted to ex­ist­ing em­ploy­ees.

For in­stance, Des Moines Area Com­munity Col­lege has part­ner­ships with John Deere and Ac­cu­mold, both of which work fre­quently with the school to set up classes so that work­ers can ac­quire x, y, or z skill. Snap-On Tools works with Gate­way Tech­nic­al Col­lege in Wis­con­sin, which has a whole cen­ter to train work­ers for jobs. They even fly the Snap-On flag on cam­pus.

The en­ergy in­dustry is one sec­tor that ag­gress­ively work­ing to train new work­ers to re­place their aging work­force. Nearly 40 per­cent of en­ergy work­ers will be eli­gible to re­tire with­in the next five years. Part of the chal­lenge is due to slower hir­ing, some of it is likely due to a weak­er eco­nomy. But it is also re­lated to the chal­lenges of find­ing work­ers with the skills they need.

PG&E in Cali­for­nia is work­ing with more than 30 com­munity col­leges to train the next en­ergy work­force. In­ter­est­ingly, while many of their gradu­ates work for PG&E at the end of the train­ing pro­gram, a de­cent num­ber end up work­ing for oth­er com­pan­ies.

Are there oth­er sec­tors par­tic­u­larly at risk?

Man­u­fac­tur­ing, of course. The Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Man­u­fac­tur­ers says they have about 600,000 jobs that are open be­cause em­ploy­ers can’t find work­ers with the skills that they need. Com­pan­ies have been work­ing to get folks to un­der­stand that the man­u­fac­tur­ing floor does not look like it did in your grand­daddy’s time. It’s not nearly as loud as you’d think, very clean. And it re­quires work­ers with a high level of skill.

Sim­il­arly, the IT in­dustry re­ports prob­lems find­ing work­ers to fill jobs. Some em­ploy­ers are push­ing to fill those through im­mig­ra­tion. But oth­ers are com­ing at this in a dif­fer­ent way. The RITE Board in north­east Ohio is look­ing to cul­tiv­ate an IT work­force that can sup­ply loc­al em­ploy­ers. North­east Ohio would not be con­fused with Sil­ic­on Val­ley in any way, and these are not IT com­pan­ies. But every com­pany has IT needs and they don’t want to al­ways go out of state — or some­times out of the coun­try — to fill those. So they’ve built a cur­ricula and a whole train­ing pro­gram to pro­duce a cadre of qual­i­fied stu­dents who will be ready to come work for them after gradu­ation.

Are there oth­er ways com­pan­ies can part­ner with learn­ing in­sti­tu­tions to de­vel­op the work­force they want and need?

Part­ner­ships can take many forms. We’ve talked a lot about cur­ricula, and mak­ing sure schools can teach to­wards the needs of em­ploy­ers. Some em­ploy­ers are also provid­ing equip­ment that stu­dents can prac­tice on. Of­ten you have em­ploy­ees work­ing with really ex­pens­ive equip­ment and you want to know they can op­er­ate it care­fully. 

Ment­or­ships can be help­ful, as well. A couple years back, a part­ner­ship between New York Pub­lic School, the City of New York, and IBM launched P-Tech, a grades 9-14 school.

9 through 14?

It cov­ers high school and then takes stu­dents through earn­ing an as­so­ci­ates de­gree. They’re do­ing a lot of what I’ve been talk­ing about: provid­ing train­ing that goes on in school, ment­ors in the form of IBM em­ploy­ees who can provide guid­ance to stu­dents and fam­il­ies along the way, and then upon gradu­ation, stu­dents get the first bite at jobs at IBM.

May­or Rahm Emanuel liked the idea so much, he pushed for it in Chica­go. They’ve launched sev­er­al schools along the same mod­el, and IBM is talk­ing to people in oth­er states, as well as work­ing with New York to spread the idea across the state. IBM has provided a play­book that oth­ers can look at and ad­apt to their com­munity. Not every place is go­ing to have a big em­ploy­er like IBM that can be the hub. But the idea is the same — guid­ing stu­dents through their train­ing with some ment­or­ship.

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