Thursday, September 20, 2012

Back to Basics

Nick Schulz on the Hard Unemployment Truths About 'Soft' Skills:

American manufacturing has become more advanced, we're told, and requires computer aptitude, intricate problem solving, and greater dexterity with complex tasks. Surely if Americans were getting STEM education, they would have the skills they need to get jobs in our modern, high-tech economy.

But considerable evidence suggests that many employers would be happy just to find job applicants who have the sort of "soft" skills that used to be almost taken for granted. In the Manpower Group's 2012 Talent Shortage Survey, nearly 20% of employers cited a lack of soft skills as a key reason they couldn't hire needed employees. "Interpersonal skills and enthusiasm/motivation" were among the most commonly identified soft skills that employers found lacking.

Employers also mention a lack of elementary command of the English language. A survey in April of human-resources professionals conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management and the AARP compared the skills gap between older workers who were nearing retirement and younger workers coming into the labor pool. More than half of the organizations surveyed reported that simple grammar and spelling were the top "basic" skills among older workers that are not readily present among younger workers.

The SHRM/AARP survey also found that "professionalism" or "work ethic" is the top "applied" skill that younger workers lack. This finding is bolstered by the Empire Manufacturing Survey for April, published by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. It said that manufacturers were finding it harder to find punctual, reliable workers today than in 2007, "an interesting result given that New York State's unemployment rate was more than 4 percentage points lower in early 2007 than in early 2012."

The skills shortage is not just an absence of workers who can write computer code, operate complex graphics software or manipulate cultures in a biotech lab—as real as that scarcity is. Many people lack what the writer R.R. Reno has called "forms of social discipline" that are indispensable components of a person's human capital and that are needed for economic success.

This is not an exercise in blaming the victim. There's plenty of fault to go around, from America's inadequate K-12 education system to the collapse of intact families and the resultant erosion of human and social capital in many communities. But we shouldn't delude ourselves about the nature of the problem facing many of the millions of Americans who can't find work.

The gap between the skills that companies are looking for in workers and what those workers are actually able to do has grown in recent years and, Shulz notes, it’s more than just specific types of technical training and experience. Until this gap is closed, there is going to be a continuing problem with unemployment. You can create or save all the jobs you want, but if people don’t have the basic skills to fill them, they’re going to remain on the sidelines.

On other aspect of this not mentioned by Shulz is that if companies aren’t able to find minimally qualified workers in the US, they will look elsewhere. In recent years, there has been something of a reversal of the trend toward off shoring with more companies deciding to bring jobs back to the US or to add jobs here. There are a whole host of reasons for this change (rising labor costs in previously low cost countries, lower US energy costs, etc.), but if companies can’t get the workers they need here it may go back in the other direction.