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 shortages But 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


Ira S Wolfe


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  2. Edward E. Gordon April 18, 2012 at 5:44 pm -

    Q. Who is to blame?
    A. The global labor market economy is changing very rapidly. This has left many people’s career/job goals behind in the dust of obsolescence. There are many culprits. Businesses, parents, students, educators, politicians, unions — all are clinging to a bygone job’s era. They are defending local education-to-employment systems that are failing. Put simply, the U.S. is not creating more people with the skills that are needed today. Reinvented local talent creation systems are needed to replace retiring skilled boomers and to fill the new jobs created over this decade by advanced technology-driven economy. There is no way to escape facing this new jobs future!

  3. Michael Cardy April 16, 2012 at 7:50 pm -

    Brilliant! The issue is NOT do we have a skills shortage here or almost anywhere else in the world, nor is it necessarily who to blame. What are we going to do about it? Business & Academic partnerships are one solution, talent mobility is another. There already is a talent war across borders – look at South Africa-Australia, India-USA, Brazil, etc. – tearing fabric of what it means to work for a living. Maybe we have lost some generations of an employable workforce by not training to meet new methodologies and needs. Not a reason to turn a blind eye to the problem!