Is the Skills Gap a Myth?

In a recent Manpower survey, 40 percent of employers said they had trouble finding qualified applicants for open jobs. On the other hand, David Nicklaus at The St. Louis Post-Dispatch points out, we have a 6.2 percent unemployment rate -- better than the recession, obviously, but still "too high in the sixth year of an economic recovery." How can we account for the simultaneous existence of a high unemployment rate and employers who say they can't find workers qualified for jobs?

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(Photo Credit: krossbow/Flickr)

Before you say "it's the skills gap, stupid," consider Peter Cappelli's recent working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, which examines labor and education data sources and finds that the real issue with matching workers and jobs might be the opposite of what we've been told.

"There is very little evidence consistent with the complaints about skills and a wide range of evidence suggesting that they are not true," writes Cappelli, who is the director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. "Indeed, a reasonable conclusion is that over-education remains the persistent and even growing situation of the US labor force with respect to skills."

In other words, Cappelli's argument is that workers are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed because they're overqualified than because they don't have the skills employers seek. He also suggested a few other explanations for persistent unemployment/underemployment. At The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Nicklaus lists a few:

1. Low pay.

In PayScale's recent data package, low pay was the No. 1 reason for respondents to consider themselves underemployed.

Companies are not "likely to admit that their salary ranges are too low," writes Nicklaus. "It's easier to blame the poor quality of the workforce."

2. Self-serving corporate practices.

HR professionals don't want to admit that their processes might not be working, or that they personally are having trouble recruiting, Nicklaus says, while firms that rely on foreign labor might exaggerate labor shortages in order to secure visas. Meanwhile, it's in the best interests of consulting firms to make hiring sound as difficult as possible, in order to demonstrate their expertise.

3. Lack of on-the-job training.

Few employers offer on-the-job training or formal apprenticeship programs, while many schools still consider it the student's responsibility to develop skills that employers seek. The end result is employers who are looking for purple squirrels, without investing in creating programs that would lead to a qualified workforce.

What's a worker to do in this environment? For one thing, keep an open mind. While it's possible that employers are being unreasonable in their expectations, or paying too little to attract top talent, employees have little control over those aspects of the job market. Better to concentrate on identifying and filling their personal skills gaps, building their networks and resumes, and creating opportunities whenever possible.

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