Who’s to Blame for Job Skill Shortages: Employers, Workers, or Schools?

Who’s to blame for the shortage of skilled workers?

Not unlike politics, it depends who you ask. Employers blame schools. Schools blame government. Workers blame employers.

The Institute for Supply Management-New York reported this month that 20 percent of its members say the shortage of skilled labor is an obstacle to business. The National Federation of Independent Business reported a rising share of small business owners who say they have jobs that are hard to fill. A Manpower Group survey revealed that 52 percent of U.S. companies report difficulty filling jobs.

The list goes on and on.

Finger pointing job skill shortagesBut enough already with all the finger-pointing.  The truth is that no entity caused the problem and no one entity can fix it.

Let’s start with employers.  Yes – despite 8-plus percent unemployment, employers can’t find enough skilled workers. Every day another publication, another industry highlights the plight of companies struggling with unfilled positions.

Part of the problem can be laid squarely at the feet of employers.  Committed to maximize productivity, employers are expecting more from workers than ever before.  That approach makes good business sense.  But the need to fill open positions has such urgency that employers seek workers who can hit the ground running with little training and no on-boarding.  In the past, new workers were observed, mentored and brought up to speed gradually.  Today, employers expect the new hire “to have that job already,” according to Dr. Peter Cappelli, director of University of Pennsylvania Wharton’s Center for Human Resources.  He recommends that employers need to “drop the idea of finding perfect candidates and look for people who could do the job with a bit of training and practice.”

That seems to place on the blame on education.  While deserving of some of the blame, schools can’t be held responsible for all things wrong.  The nature of work has changed.  The number of available low-skilled jobs is evaporating faster than water on a hot summer day.  According to Edward Gordon, “between today and 2020, low-paying, low-skill jobs will shrink to just 26 percent of the total jobs in the U.S.   Worst of all, just 44 million people will be needed for those jobs, but 150 million or more candidates will be seeking those jobs.”

It used to be that if you worked with your hands and had a good work ethic, you had a lifelong career. But now it’s not the worker’s hands and back that does the grunt work – it’s a robot.  And workers that are needed by employers must understand how to program, operate, and repair a robot.  That requires good math skills…and good critical thinking skills… computer skills.  And it’s not just skills that are needed.  It’s the ability to apply those skills on the job.  And that requirement is a problem.

A headline this week in the Philadelphia Inquirer read “job seekers can’t do math.” That shouldn’t come as any surprise. It’s been reported for years that the high school dropout rate in the U.S. approaches 30 percent year.  Among the 33 other OECD countries, 17 countries had higher average scores than the United States.  When it comes to preparing students for future jobs requiring basic math skills, schools deservedly earn a failing grade.

But to be fair, shouldn’t employees assume some responsibility to develop and maintain job relevance?  The answer is an unequivocal Y-E-S.  Every organization has a responsibility to its stakeholders and/or shareholders to be productive and profitable. They can’t do that with employees who don’t come to work with the most basic of skills – reading, writing, and arithmetic. It’s not in the best interest of business to set their job skill requirements to the lowest common denominator. That places responsibility for acquiring and continually upgrading minimum job skills on the shoulders of job seekers.  Everyone is entitled to the opportunity to work.  But entitlement doesn’t include the right to middle class wages and lifestyle when the skills they bring to work are for obsolete or lower-skill jobs.

The major workplace transformation however will be driven by technology and globalization – and working with those conditions requires new skill sets. The definition of work has changed … and will change again sooner than later. Employers, workers, and schools need to get a grip on reality and start working together to prepare for employment in the future workplace.

Perfect Labor Storm book

Why Employers Can’t Take Chances on Low Skill Employees

You’ve read it before.  The future of work is vastly different than the past. And the skills required to perform the jobs of the future are night-and-day when compared to the skills of many workers.  For many companies and employees, that future is today.

A recent story on NPR highlighted this dramatic shift in job skills and did one of the best jobs at describing the differences.

The subject of the story was Standard Motor Products, a three-generation family business that makes replacement parts for car engines. A few decades ago, a lot of his workers had no high school degree. Some couldn’t read. But they were paid well and many enjoyed a comfortable living wage, maybe even middle class lifestyle.

That was then. This is now.  In today’s factory, workers don’t just have to know how to read. They need advanced technical skills, including critical thinking skills.

The article (and podcast) describes the perfect model of the new factory worker. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of metals and microscopes, gauges and plugs. He works on the team that makes parts or assembles machines that which require precision engineering. In the past, the worker only needed to know how to use a hammer and screwdriver.  Today, manufacturing is becoming a high-tech, high-precision business. Today’s it’s all about finesses. The article even suggests that “mow it’s all finesse” could be the motto of American manufacturing today.

Manufacturing has advanced so much that even a college degree and some computer skills isn’t enough to get hired.  Knowledge of the machine’s computer language is a basic requirement. Learning the language just takes time but what about the ability to picture dozens of moving parts in your head. How many workers have that ability? And if they don’t how would you ever train it?

For employers like Standard Motor Products, they can’t afford to take a chance on workers who don’t have the skill. 90-day probation periods just don’t cut it anymore in a skilled, lean workplace. One mistake can be catastrophic, when the business is not dealing with feet and inches but microns. One micron is four-hundred-thousandths of an inch. A human hair, for example, is 70 microns thick. At Standard, they cannot be off by one-tenth the thickness of a hair.

“A 7- or 8-micron wrong adjustment in this machine cost us a $25,000 workhead spindle,” one Standard employee said. “Two seconds, we could lose $25,000.”

Standard still employees lesser skilled workers, but their days are numbered.  These workers have a high school diploma, but no further education. They work on a simple machine that seals the cap of a fuel injector onto the body. All she does is insert two parts and push a button. It requires no discretion, no judgment. There’s only one way to run it: the right way.  Unfortunately it won’t be long until the simple job is automated or outsourced too.  When? As soon as the cost of her wages and benefits – or mistakes – exceeds the cost of purchasing and implementing robotics. Of course, a drop in the cost of robotics could also doom the low-skill worker. Talk about being caught between the rock and the hard place!

The solution is more training and education. But “the gap between the skilled and the unskilled is so vast that often the only way to make the leap is by leaving work and getting some education. And that’s just not financially feasible for a lot of Americans.”

Read more at The Transformation Of American Factory Jobs, In One Company

Pros and Cons of Using Social Media for Sourcing Candidates

Unemployment remains high. Many among those newly employed have been hired on a temporary basis only. There is, it seems, no shortage of candidates applying for available jobs. Human resource departments, often under severe budgetary pressures due to cost-cutting, find it increasingly difficult to narrow down the number of suitable applicants, never mind finding the right person for the job. Sourcing the talent pool effectively and efficiently for qualified candidates is more important to successful hiring than ever before.

Happy Job Applicant and Social MediaThat search for the right candidate brings us to social media. The Society of Human Resource Management reports that, in 2011, 56% of employers were using social media for recruiting and an additional 20% had plans to add it in the near future.

There is perhaps no better source of qualified candidates than social media. There is also perhaps no more potentially hazardous tool for sourcing candidates than social media. We hope the following brief examination of some of the benefits and pitfalls provides a helpful guide as you navigate this landscape.

When we say ‘social media’ we are referring to any of the over 400 categorized social networking sites (SNS). Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and many others allow individuals to share who they are with the world. Other social media technologies provide the means by which employers can, in essence, “pre-screen” job seekers include industry group pages, chat rooms, career websites, alumni membership sites and others.

What these all have in common is that they enable you to source talent through what I call word of mouth on steroids. While your friends and connections may not be qualified for the job, they might know someone who is.  And even if their families and colleagues aren’t qualified, they too might know a friend or co-worker looking for a job.

Social media is beneficial too when sourcing because it gives you a broader representation of the job seeker than you would get from the standard resume and cover letter. How well a person expresses thoughts, how well she writes, what her interests are, what she thinks about her current employment (or unemployment) situation, where her passions lie and how she addresses past employers are among the many things you can discover when visiting her Facebook or LinkedIn page or Twitter feed.

You can also learn whether the job seeker has established an online brand. Has he chosen to share his depth of knowledge, ability to communicate clearly, information regarding special skills or expertise? And, if so, has he remained active in social networking? In other words, has he established and maintained an active social network profile?

Finally, and this leads us into a discussion of the potential pitfalls, does the social networking site presence of the individual speak to character or perhaps even unlawful conduct? While some states prohibit consideration of almost any off-the-job behavior (i.e., in one’s private life) when making decisions regarding employment, it is still permissible to consider one’s judgment and lack of discretion for sharing such matters publicly, especially if you are looking for someone to fill a position of management or another requiring the ability to build endorsement.

Some companies simply refuse to use social media when sourcing, recruiting or hiring. The reasons are many and, importantly for those that don’t use it, valid. You may find out more information than you want to know at this stage of the process, much of which may include details that you are prohibited from considering in any hiring decision. For example, photos posted on Facebook will usually tell you whether someone is a member of a class protected by law against discrimination. The social media site may disclose someone’s political leanings or religious beliefs, sexual orientation, even his or her biases.

The danger in using social media in this process isn’t what you find out (which you usually can’t control), but what you do with it once you’ve discovered it. You should have a social media and internet use policy, reviewed by labor counsel, which provides guidelines necessary for the effective use social media for sourcing.

For companies struggling to find qualified and skilled workers, it is not a matter of “if” but “when” you will use social media for sourcing candidates.  Ignorance will not be bliss for those employers who continue to postpone the inevitable. Good advice is to start slow but start now.  Explore different social networking sites to see what participants are talking about and how other employers are using it. Select a site that seems to attract people who might fit your basic job requirements.  Begin some conversations and explore the opportunity. And by all means, develop guidelines that protect the company but use common sense and be practical.  Just saying no to social media is no longer a viable option for sourcing candidates.

What Jobs Should the U.S. Be Creating?

The news about jobs is getting better.  The unemployment rate dipped for the fifth straight month to 8.3 percent.  The number of jobs being created has been rising at a rate of 200,000 each month, topped by 243,000 jobs added in January alone.

That is great news for the economy and fuel for a surge on Wall Street, where the Nasdaq hit an 11-year high and the Dow Jones Industrial Average reached a peak not seen since 2008.

Does this mean the U.S. economy has found a cure for the recession or a strategy to relieve and mask the symptoms of a deeper, more serious problem?   The truth is that it’s likely a little of both.  Unfortunately that means that sooner than later the problem will resurface, much like an untreated cancer eventually weakens and destroys the functions of the body. 

Much of our unemployment since the recession has been the result of massive layoffs in construction and manufacturing.  Creating new jobs in manufacturing, according to many politicos, bureaucrats, economists, and executives, are the key to our recovery.  With more people working, more consumption will take place and more homes will be built and purchased, putting millions of unemployed construction workers back to work.  That all makes sense.

Except (you likely knew that was coming)… that the manufacturing jobs we need to create aren’t the manufacturing jobs that existed pre-2008. We don’t need workers to just make things. We need workers who make the things that make things and then make those “thing-makers” work in seamless integrated systems. 

And that’s the problem.  We have a lot of people who are really good at making things. But so does the rest of the world…and they are willing to work more hours for less money.  That’s one reason why the U.S. economy is struggling to create jobs. To compete, many of the old manufacturing jobs are gone forever. If those jobs exist, they have been automated, requiring maybe one worker to do the job of five or ten workers just a few years ago.  In other words, we could have our manufacturing output humming at record levels and still employ a fraction of the workers that did the same job 10 years ago.

****15 Careers to Avoid****

What the U.S. does better than anyone else in the world is make the things that make things. Unfortunately we don’t have enough of those skilled workers or the workers who can service those thing-makers.  We need workers who can spot a faulty circuit board, not count nuts and bolts. We need workers who can design, troubleshoot and repair a defective robotic arm, not manufacture the components of the robot.

For politicians and especially low skill workers, that situation places job creation at a painful crossroad.  For millions of workers over the past few decades, low skill jobs were the ticket to the middle class and upward mobility. But that has all changed.  Good paying careers dependent on low skill workers are gone.  That leaves tens of millions of past and future workers stuck in jobs that offer at best bare bone living wages and no future.

To create jobs that ensure workers can earn a living wage and entertain the possibility of moving up requires answers to three interrelated questions:

  1. What products should be made and supported in the U.S.?
  2. What jobs can and should be created that provide good living wages, upward mobility, and still keep the U.S. competitive?
  3. What needs to be done to train and re-train millions of low-skilled and under-skilled U.S. workers to do these jobs?

****Best Paying Jobs of the Future****

The order in which we answer the questions is critical. We first must determine what products (or services) should be made in the U.S.  Unfortunately we seem to be attempting to solve the job creation problem in reverse order. We want to train and re-train for many jobs that might be obsolete or become low-paying in the very near future.  And not all jobs that might be created help the U.S. become or remain competitive.

The U.S. is at the proverbial fork in the road.  What road should we take? What products and services should be make and support?

What You Need to Know Before Hiring Top Performers

As a follow-up to my article Why We Need to Hire Fewer and Fewer People, employers must first understand what it takes for a candidate or employee to become a successful Conceptual Worker. At the core is an ability to know what to do and then do it.  Diving deeper, the Conceptual Worker is expected to solve problems creatively and innovatively, or as Daniel Pink writes, to engage the right brain as much as the left.

While the task of assessing a candidate requires much more thought and analysis than just 5 tips, I offer these 5 basic abilities and personality traits as the starting point if an organization is going to not just survive, but grow and thrive.

1.  Curiosity.  Whether it’s nature or nurture – or both – some people are just more curious than others.  In a hierarchical, top-down management style, low curiosity is rewarded. Managers who bark the following orders are dinosaurs in a competitive 21st century business:  

“I pay you to do what I tell you to do.”

“You’re not paid to ask questions.”  

“Your job is not to question why.”

Management needs to start rewarding curiosity and seek candidates who ask questions and seek answers. But that’s hard work for managers who believe they are the master and employees are the servants. Employers must begin to hire and retain employees who question the source of the information. They need the ability to separate fact from fiction, rumor from truth, hearsay from reality.

2.  Cognitive ability. This term is often tossed around loosely by HR and management.  I like to use this simple contextual description for employers:  Cognitive ability or general reasoning skills is the ability to process new information quickly.  It’s plain and simple.  In this context, cognitive skills may not be related to education, experience, or IQ. It is merely how quickly one can process new information and formulate a response. Of course, some education and reasonable IQ might be required to make certain decisions and solve problems.  But put into this context, cognitive ability is not what you know but how quickly you can assess and apply it.  Unfortunately many managers still hire “smart” people by education degrees, experience, and IQ.  But when it comes to job performance, all they have to show is an impressive resume, often biographical and not predictive of future success.

3. Open-mindedness.  Asking a lot of questions to confirm your predetermined decision leads to lost opportunity and innovation. I’m not suggesting there is not a time and place to seek the information that justifies an action. But being laser focused, also means you miss the elephant in the room. (I’m sure many of you are familiar with the training video, where an elephant walks through the room but few people see it because they are so focused on the other activity.)  Another example of applying open mindedness is “white space opportunity.”  While reading this you are focused on the text. But the text only uses about 25 percent of all the space on this page.  What opportunities exist in the white space? The book Blue Ocean Strategy provides an excellent application for keeping an open mind.

4.  Business Values.  What we value skews the importance we place on certain information.  Daniel Pink suggests that the new MBA is an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) because of the increased awareness of the right brain.  If we value money and power more than community and learning, we will likely give more weight to information that addresses the bottom line but ignores how it might impact other people or sustaining long term performance.  Individuals need to be aware about what they value positively and judge negatively. Managers too need to understand how values affect critical decisions they make and how their human resources filter the information they receive.

5.  Resilience.  Evaluating this trait accurately might surprise some people.  Most managers look for loyalty, long tenures of employment, and no-quit attitude.  When working on a task, high resilience is critical.  But in looking forward, creating a vision, and developing strategy, too much resilience may result in stubbornness.  Sometimes you just have to punt or at least change direction.  Emotional stability also plays a factor in resilience.  Asking questions and challenging the status quo likely generates resistance. Sometimes this resistance results in upset or angry managers, customers, and employees. Top performers in today’s workforce need to be able to take criticism objectively, not personally.  Unfortunately in testing over thousands of candidates and employees, many talented employees fail because they take every question, comment, and piece of feedback as a personal affront.  But just as important are those individuals whose criticism tolerance is high.  High criticism tolerance sometimes is perceived by others as lacking empathy, poor listening skills, or arrogance. Resilience is a critical factor when assessing talent but too much is just as important as not enough.

Note: Curiousity, resilience, and criticism tolerance are just 3 of the traits assessed using ASSESS; Business values are assessed using Business Values and Motivators; and Cognitive abilities are assessed using Prevue Learning and Reasoning.

Doubts about qualifed workers in PA

Pennsylvania employers are concerned about the availability of qualified workers in the state, according to a survey conducted in early May by Dauphin County-based Susquehanna Polling & Research.  500 businesses were surveyed.

Employers also are skeptical of whether a high school diploma is a guarantee a young person is prepared to successfully enter the workforce, according to the poll. Four out of five business owners and senior managers agree statewide education standards and uniform final exams would help improve the state's workforce, the poll found.

More than 60 percent of respondents rate the quality of the state's workforce as good or excellent, but very few think it has improved in recent years. One-third of respondents believe it has worsened, the poll found. About half of the managers surveyed reported their companies lose productivity by having to train or retrain workers on basic skills.

Read more about firms struggling to fill jobs.


Firms struggle to fill jobs; Engineers and nurses top the list

A shortage of qualified job candidates continues despite the economic downturn, according to Manpower Inc.’s annual Talent Shortage Survey.

The company says 30 percent of employers worldwide are struggling to find qualified personnel. Positions in the skilled trades, sales, technical work and engineering remain the most difficult for employers to fill globally.

Manpower surveyed nearly 39,000 employers in 33 countries and territories to gauge their ability to find the talent they need.

The 10 hardest jobs to fill, as reported by 2,000 U.S. employers in 2009, are:

1. Engineers.

2. Nurses.

3. Skilled/manual trades.

4. Teachers.

5. Sales representatives.

6. Technicians.

7. Drivers.

8. Information-technology staff.

9. Laborers.

10. Machinist/machine operators.

Read more.

White House struggles finding qualified staff

The Perfect Labor Storm is far from over. While millions of Americans are being laid off, one organization is demonstrating how difficult it is and will be to find qualified workers.  Despite many attempts to trivialize the threat of imminent skills shortages, the Perfect Labor Storm encompasses a far broader and more threatening landscape.  In addition to gaping skills gaps in our workforce, finding people integrity makes the job that much more difficult. 

And the problem goes all the way to the White House.  Of the 373 Obama administration jobs that require Senate confirmation, only 43 have been filled.  Many potential nominees have been disqualified because of tax or nanny problems or other blemishes on their records.

Source: Newsweek

Too fat to fight; Military scrambles to fill quota

Despite record layoffs and rising unemployment, many organizations are still scrambling to find qualified workers.

According to a post on ABCnews.com, one in five military-age Americans is too fat to join the armed services.  The military has turned away 48,000 overweight applicants since 2005 – a number greater than all the U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan!

Despite high unemployment, business still struggles finding qualified workers

Despite the layoffs and rising unemployment, I have a number of clients struggling to find qualified workers.  This doesn't come to me as any surprise since I've been writing about it since 1999 (www.perfectlaborstorm.com).  But it seems to be counter-intuitive to mainstream management and the media who still haven't accepted the fact that the filling seats with warm bodies is a thing of the past. 

To prove my point that even in this downturn, more job seekers doesn't solve the problem for many companies. Jus this morning, I received this request from an HR manager:

“My company has been searching for a 3rd shift Sanitation Supervisor since May of 2008 and have not been able to find qualified candidates. … I would appreciate any advice on other routes of sourcing a great candidate for this position. We have placed ads in area newspapers multiple times and have over 5 recruiters searching for us as well!”

So…here's my request.  Do you have any stories about your company (or clients) looking for key employees that they still can't find?  Are these tough-to-fill positions holding the company back?  In what ways is it costing them when the position is not filled? And what if any advice would you have for managers in the same situation?