H1N1 Will Expose Crisis of Finding Skilled Workers

On Friday,the Labor Department announced other uptick in unemployment. The announcement coincided with the arrival in my inbox of alerts of potentially significant skilled worker shortages.  How can that be? With over 15 million people unemployed and another nearly 10 million people under-employed (not counting those people who just stopped looking) how can we be talking labor shortages? 

The answer is really quite simple.  In the late 1990s, many people (including yours truly) fell prey to the theory that we could continue to create jobs at a rate greater than our ability to find people to fill them.  For many reasons including a combination of the Great Recession and technology that didn't happen nor is it likely to.  HOWEVER,  that doesn't alleviate a shortage of labor. 

By the early years of this decade, most of us realized that the gap wasn't one of quantity but quality. Even today with approximately 7 people available to fill every open job, many employers are unable to find qualified employees.

For example, as the outbreak of H1N1 spreads, U.S. laboratories will see a big surge in their testing workload, according to the American Society for Clinical Pathology. A large spike in swine flu screenings could clog a lab system already struggling with a shortage of workers, the ASCP said. Citing federal statistics, the ASCP said that 138,000 new laboratory professionals will be needed nationwide by 2012, but fewer than 50,000 will be trained. California and other Far West states are weathering a 53 percent shortage of medical technologists in hospitals, commercial labs and other diagnostic facilities; followed by 46 percent in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas, and 42 percent in the Northeast.

At just about the same time, I read how reverse immigration was a trend the U.S. was beginning to experience. While that should bring relief to many people, it may not bode well for the U.S. future. While the U.S. was losing its global dominance as the land of opportunity and the fortunes and futures of China and India improved, the U.S. has started to lose many of its best and brightest workers.  While only constituting 12% of the U.S. population, immigrants have started 52% of Silicon Valley's technology companies and contributed to more than 25% of our global patents. They make up 24% of the U.S. science and engineering workforce holding bachelor's degrees and 47% of science and engineering workers who have PhDs. Immigrants have co-founded firms such as Google, Intel, eBay, and Yahoo!. While we may not need all these workers right now, we will need skilled, talented, and highly educated workers to help us recover.

The third example, but not definitely not the last of shortages to come, had to do with the likelihood that we will run out of hospital beds should H1N1 affect 35 percent of the population. (While that might seem almost surrealistic, that number is not far-flung should efforts to prevent a pandemic outbreak fail.) What does hospital beds have to do with labor?  The beds are just a symptom.  The entire health care system is already strained. When an H1N1 outbreak occurs, health care labor shortages will only be exaggerated.  Shortages already exist for skilled workers in the Emergency Rooms and Critical Care Units. Vacancies exist almost universally in the U.S. for primary care providers. Openings exist in nearly every hospital and medical practice for nurses, assistants, and technicians.  And health care providers aren't immune to the flu either. What happens when they get sick or call off to take care of family?

On top of all that during the first half of 2009, local health departments cut about 8,000 staff positions. In 2008, an estimated 7,000 public health jobs were eliminated. From 2005 to 2009, federal public health preparedness funding was slashed by 25%.

The Perfect Labor Storm is far from over.  Despite high unemployment, serious gaps exist in our ability to fill all the job positions available, many critical to the health and well-being of our economy and citizens.


Ira S Wolfe