Have we all been suckered in by that jobs-skills mismatch argument?

In the past year or so I’ve written and reposted a number of articles on the supposed jobs-skills mismatch in Minnesota (and America overall), and some questions have slowly started to nag me.

Among them:

  • How can it really be that despite all of our top-flight educational resources there’s a mismatch — and that it’s the education sector’s fault?
  • Why do the laws of supply and demand magically fail to work in this sector of the labor force? If wages and salaries were increased, wouldn’t the job candidates come calling?
  • Why is it suddenly the government’s job to provide job- and vocational training for business after high school? Why don’t businesses do it themselves, as they used to decades ago through apprenticeships, internships and such?
  • Are businesses willing to invest in the solution if government is?
  • If such training (or a two-year degree) is now the minimum requirement for the 21st-century labor force, why don’t we make it free? A high school degree used to be the minimum, and we’ve funded that. Should we expand our concept of mandatory education?

I can’t say that what I’ve been hearing and reading is bogus, but so many elements seem a bit suspect.

Now one On Campus reader has sent me a column/blog from the Columbia Journalism Review (of all publications) that essentially says the news media (including me?) have all been hoodwinked by the corporate types.

(It calls the “can’t find workers” complaint a “meme”, which is more or less a running theme or joke that’s making its way through the Internet.)

The post cites a guest who was on MPR’s Nov. 30 Midmorning program on why employers can’t find job candidates: Wharton School of Business professor Peter Cappelli.

The main message gleaned from the blog, Cappelli’s piece and a related blog entry:

We news media have taken at face value the assertions that there’s some new education-related mismatch between jobs and skills. There’s simply no proof that it exists or that the education sector is at fault, and signs instead indicated that businesses are simply unwilling to train people the way they used to.

The blog sums it up:

Letting companies complain that there’s no reserve supply of labor when they need it amidst mass unemployment is a bit much. If you need the perfect fit, you’d better be prepared to pay that prospective employee or to train him or her.

Read the full post here (it has links to other pieces) and Cappelli’s article here.

  • Anonymous

    Chuckle. Alex — you should go on vacation more often! I love the thoughtful rationality of the refreshed new you!

    • Anonymous

       Thanks. It’s amazing what a sunburn will do.

  • Anonymous

    Keep digging into this – you’re on the right track. Dig into the statistics on MN manufacturers. Look at how much training they give their employees in comparison to the national average. Look at how much they give now and compare it to past decades. Look at whether or not they partner with higher ed institutions for worker training and compare that to other states. You’ll find the answer you’re looking for.

    • Alex Friedrich

      Indeed. I wonder whether a third party would keep those. I doubt manufacturers would give me those. I’ll look into it.

  • Anonymous

    It has been my belief for some time that the claimed skills/jobs mismatch is a phony issue.

    Years ago, I remember the rather non-specific responses of my colleagues in industry to the question: What exactly do you want in your new employees?

    Just keep sending us bright young people who are up on the latest so that we can keep our workforce at the cutting edge, or something like that.

    As you have pointed out in your excellent essay above, it appears that the emperor has no clothes.

    I also have the feeling that many businesses want round pegs for round holes. In the long run it might be better to get some square pegs, too. But then you might have to spend time training people up and worrying about career development.  This is what companies like 3M and Procter and Gamble used to do in their heydays.

    Couldn’t do that now, could we?  Can’t really think past the next quarter. I am, of course, being sarcastic.  Some good companies in Minnesota still do.

    Maybe when the economy picks up, things will improve.  I really haven’t seen a significant decrease in the abilities of students who have worked in my lab over the years. You have to have an eye for good people, and they are not always the ones with the highest grades. There are a lot of lean, hungry, and motivated people out there right now in our educational institutions. We need to put them to work!

    • Alex Friedrich

      Your “when the economy picks up” point is interesting.

      Could be true.

      That said, one could argue that industry will find it even harder to find employees, because those candidates will be lured by potentially even more attractive sectors that are also booming.

      We’ll see.

      I remember being in Silicon Valley during the boom time.

      As the blog post states, tech companies were taking bright people left and right who didn’t have tech backgrounds, paying them gobs of money and training them on the job. Lots of my news colleagues left to do that.

      Then again, they were let go when the bubble burst.

  • Monte Bute

    Excellent post, Alex. I just spent the last two days meeting with legislators. They have bought this business lobby spin–hook, line and sinker. MnSCU is a perfect example of genuflecting to this fad; I recently asked at a legislative hearing if MnSCU is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Minnesota Business Partnership and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.