Skills gap? What skills gap?

A lot of people in rural Minnesota have been worried that the state won’t have enough people with the right skills to fill available jobs in coming years in manufacturing, health care and other economic mainstays. Employers say they can’t find people, and the future looks even scarier as more and more jobs demand post high school education.

The problem, we’ve been told, is adding 2 percentage points to the state’s unemployment levels — thousands of unemployed workers that could find jobs if they had better skills. And last year, both the Governor’s Workforce Development Council and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities held dozens of meetings around the state to engage people in how to address this “skills gap” question.

Young adults outstate are just as likely to have high school degrees as do metro residents but far less likely to have college degrees, so if jobs demand more education in the future, that has an especially important impact outstate.

Now comes Steve Hine, research director at the state Department of Employment and Economic Development, to say hold on a bit. For details of a new DEED report out today, check out MPR News reporter Tom Robertson’s story this afternoon on All Things Considered on Hine’s research into the so-called “skills gap.”

Hine has taken exception to some of the national numbers that have been scaring people. DEED drilled specifically into 1,500 nursing, industrial and materials engineering and high-tech machine operator and related job openings in Minnesota last year.

Employers said they had a hard time filling 45 percent of those jobs, but Hine cautioned that doesn’t necessarily mean people didn’t have the right skills. Sometimes wages weren’t high enough or the location made it hard. In truth, DEED found, employers reported that “skills” were the sole contributor to the job-filling difficulty in only a third of those jobs, or 15 percent of all openings. Additionally, they were a factor, along with others, in half of the difficult-to-fill openings.

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Among nursing, engineering and production jobs studied by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, a third of “difficult to fill” jobs involved solely a difficulty finding skilled people.

A lot of questions remain around this issue, and the more you look into it, the more nuanced they become. For example, the DEED study found the skills gap problem more significant in the machine-related production jobs than in nursing or engineering.

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More of a “skills gap” showed up when DEED looked just at high-tech machine production jobs.

What is the role of the state’s higher education system here and how fine-tuned should that role become by job sector? Why don’t employers do more training on their own? Why don’t they pay more and let the marketplace dictate? (The DEED report’s final sentence says it’s “worth asking what role employers might play. Where demand-side issues are driving the problem, employers may be in the best position to offer a course correction.”) Are there appropriate public-private partnerships that should be tried?

The report finds that just because a job is hard for employer to fill doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a skills problem. But, it also says, “skills mismatches–misalignment of supply and demand–occur in pockets of Minnesota’s labor market. When they do, the policy and education response cannot be one-size-fits-all, but rather, should be customized to the industry or set of occupations facing difficulty.”

Robertson found there are employers, particularly in the area of advanced manufacturing who insist it’s not simply a matter of paying more. They say they sometimes can’t find people with the right skills, and often that means the “soft skills” of working well in a team, directing others, being flexible.

(The question has been drawing increasing attention nationally. Here’s New York Times’ columnist Tom Friedman’s take last November on a Minnesota employer who had a tough time finding welders, for example. And here’s the Times’ story yesterday that suggests, like Hine, that something more than a simple skills gap is going on.)

You can find the full report here.

Robertson is doing reporting on this topic in and around his home territory of Bemidji — the DEED report shows more of a problem with difficult-to-fill jobs outstate than in the metro area — and we’re planning to be on the air and online with a Ground Level package of stories in the coming weeks.

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If you have thoughts on how tough it is to fill or find jobs outstate or on the state’s new report, I’d love to have you comment on the bottom of this post.

  • Jason Sprenger

    Yes, employers surely need to step up, train employees and do their part to ensure a competitive workforce. But the fact remains skills gaps are emerging in today’s economy, and a solution that’s proven to make a difference in helping the economy thrive is investing in career and technical education (CTE). CTE programs, whether at the secondary, post-secondary or other educational level, boost student achievement and deliver increased career and earning potential. CTE also produces workers for the open jobs of today, and boosts business productivity and economic status as a result. Whether it’s sewing or shop class, or another one of the many varied CTE career paths, it all makes a significant difference to students, communities and the economy.

    The Industry Workforce Needs Council is a new organization of businesses working together to spotlight skills gaps and advocate/kick off CTE programs that work to curb the problem. For more information, or to join the effort, visit the IWNC website.

    Jason Sprenger, for the IWNC