08 September 2011

The Skilled Labor Gap

This posting continues a discussion of the role of education and training in helping to create a skilled workforce -- earlier discussions can be found here and here. Policies to foster skilled labor are a central element of innovation policy.

My position -- still being formulated -- is that a problem exists for the simple reason that companies cannot find skilled workers and yet the ranks of the unemployed is high.  Part of the reason for this skilled labor gap is that we in the educational community (yes, I'm part of the problem) are not paying enough attention to the real world skills that employers want and need. Instead we are either focused on creating idealized "knowledge workers" or implementing some theoretical conception of a good education (usually where skills are devalued as compared to the sorts of knowledge that professors have).

Have a look at this article from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal on the skilled labor gap.  Here are a few excerpts:
Even as thousands of Wisconsin manufacturing workers remain unemployed, companies are worried about a lack of skilled labor. Some manufacturers say they've lost business or face stagnant growth because they can't find qualified help.

Often there's a disconnect between people who are out of work and companies struggling to fill factory jobs that require advanced skills such as reading blueprints and programming computer-controlled machines.

"I worry more about that than I worry about competition from China," Rauscher said.

Statewide, 31,000 job openings were posted at Department of Workforce Development employment centers last month, including thousands of openings at manufacturing plants. Yet the state's unemployment rate remains stubbornly high at 7.8% as of July.
Manufacturers are finding it difficult to find workers with even the most basic of skills:
Availability of skilled workers is a top concern of manufacturers. With Indiana, Wisconsin has the highest concentration of workers in the manufacturing sector in the nation, according to the Center on Wisconsin Strategy.

While he was at Bucyrus, now owned by Caterpillar Inc., Sullivan moved about 125 welding jobs to Texas because he couldn't find enough people locally with the necessary skills. Show up with the right credentials, and companies such as Karl Schmidt Unisia Inc. could offer you a job on the spot, according to the Marinette maker of engine parts.

"We don't need rocket scientists. We need people with basic technical skills who know how to use tools, work with their hands and make something happen," said Ron Kadlubowski, director of machining technology at Karl Schmidt Unisia.

The company has grown from 250 employees in 1985 to more than 900 now. Currently, Kadlubowski said, it has dozens of openings for skilled machine operators.

"We have so many openings now, it's amazing," he said. "If you come in with a basic skill set, and you don't have some rotten work history, you are going to get hired. And other companies in the area are hiring people left and right. The hard part is finding someone who looks encouraging."

One problem in addressing the skills crisis is a lack of basic math skills, manufacturers say.

Many job applicants can't answer the question "what is one half of one half," Rauscher said, and they can't measure something to a fraction of an inch.

"How are you going to get a workforce together when people lack those basic skills? It's pretty pathetic," he said.
What about more vocational training in public schools?  Here it seems that employers and university educators have different views:

Some blame the public schools for not preparing students for manufacturing careers.

Sullivan favors restoring a "dual enrollment" program that Wisconsin had years ago, where high school students could take classes at technical colleges and get credit toward their high school diploma as well as technical school.

"It's not a jobs crisis that we have, in my opinion. It's an education crisis," he said.

There's a huge gap between high schools and the world of work, Golembeski said. "Young people aren't getting work experience early on. The jobs they used to do are now automated or have been taken by older workers."

Often, schools can't afford to create workshops that have factory machines costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

And some schools place almost no emphasis on manufacturing-career skills.

"Students come out of high school with no technical training and no practical skills, including how to measure something with a caliper scale," Kadlubowski said.

Vocational education has its critics, including Robert Lowe, a professor in the department of educational policy and leadership at Marquette University.

Historical data shows that students who took vocational education classes often ended up in jobs they didn't train for, and it didn't give them an advantage in their career earnings, according to Lowe.

"When you insert vocational education into a high school, you are basically saying that is going to be the destiny for a certain sector of the population. And it just doesn't fit all that well. There's been a mismatch that goes all the way back almost a century," he said.
The skilled labor gap is a national problem.  Here is another example from Dayton, Ohio:
. . . Rob Baker, manager of Behr Thermal Products’ Dayton plant. He said he needed 55 production workers immediately, but was having trouble finding candidates who could pass a drug test, read at an 8th-grade level or were willing to work eight hours a day on their feet.
The Behr jobs available are unskilled positions with starting hourly wages of $11.65, he said.

“We really need to have a conversation with businesses,” said Steven Johnson, president of Sinclair, which since 2009 has served 4,600 workers who lost their jobs in the recession.

“We’ve basically given up on finding skilled workers,” said Steve Staub of Vandalia’s Staub Manufacturing Solutions. He said he has taken to hiring former auto technicians from Walmart who are reliable and are willing to train to perform his company’s work.

He said he tries to follow the advice of Iams founder and area benefactor Clay Mathile: “Hire for attitude and train for skill.”

Bill Linesch, human resources vice president for Premier Health Partners, said Premier has 500 openings for a wide ranges of jobs and a hunger for reliable workers.

“Our No. 1 reason for termination is absenteeism,” Linesch said.

Derek Maddox, a deputy for operations at SAIC’s local offices, said he has 50 openings in computer science and engineering and hardware engineering. But as a defense contractor, he has additional requirements that make finding the right people even tougher.

“All of my employees must be U.S. citizens and they must be eligible for a security clearance,” he said.

The problem isn’t getting easier, said John McCormick, a senior principal with Heapy Engineering, a Kettering mechanical engineering firm.

“As technology advances, we require more and more skilled workers,” he said.
The skilled labor gap raises some difficult questions about public education, the government's role in supporting (or even undertaking) skills training and even immigration policies.  From where I sit such a conversation has not yet been fully engaged, particularly in the modern university, where we remain blissfully ignorant of the skilled labor gap.