Companies need more qualified candidates to fill open positions, but why are so many people across the U.S. jobless? A recent industry roundtable highlighted how companies can share responsibility and give back to employees through training and education at a time when employer expectations are at a peak.
At a February Aspen Institute roundtable event sponsored by Grainger, a supplier of maintenance repair and operating products, industry professionals spoke about the underlying issues behind the skills gap and the steps necessary to fill jobs at a faster pace. Karen Elzey, the director of Skills for America’s Future, an initiative to boost industry partnerships with community colleges, described the problem: There are 3.7 million open jobs in the U.S., including 276,000 unfilled jobs in manufacturing.
Grainger president and CEO Jim Ryan explained that finding employable workers is an issue that halts company productivity and growth. The workforce shortage is also an issue that impacts suppliers and customers. “Without solving this [worker shortage] problem, eventually it’s going to be difficult to have a sustainable economy,” he said.
Who’s to blame for the workforce issue? Employer expectations have risen to new levels, according to Peter Cappelli, author of Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs, and professor of management and director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School. During the discussion, he noted that in previous decades, employers would train employees and hold on to them. Now, companies are asking more from their employees while giving less.
“The big change is that employers want different things. In the 80s, they used to say, ‘We want people who are trainable and if they have great attitudes we will train them.’ Now they are not saying that. They are saying, ‘We want someone, not only with an academic background that completely fits our needs, we also want somebody with five years’ experience,’” he noted.
Cappelli also emphasized that there is a policy problem. With millions unemployed, not enough employers are willing to give workers initial experience and training. Furthermore, wages are declining. “The rate of pay for machinists has declined. If there’s really a shortage, wages should rise,” he said.
Yet even with low wages, employers’ standards are on the rise—a workforce issue that has trickled into a broad range of industries. The New York Times recently highlighted “degree inflation,” in which employers raise the bar by hiring workers with bachelor’s degrees for low-skilled positions such as couriers and file clerks—jobs that did not require a degree in the past.
Hiring managers with long wish lists are partially to blame, according to Cappelli. He urges companies to take a step back, evaluate wages, and properly train workers for the skills that they need.
Ryan added that employers, faced with aging workers and unfilled positions, need to partner with schools to better prepare their workforce.
“I think the economic environment that we are operating in is forcing companies and educators to find a way to get together to solve this problem jointly,” he said. “Companies cannot be on the sidelines and they need to invest in education.”
Yonnie Leung, senior manager for workforce development at Pacific Gas and Electric Company, offered an employer perspective, stating that companies need to pay close attention to the skills that they require and coordinate better with schools for specific needs. “There’s less of a focus on technical education, both at the high school and the community college level, and it’s our job as employers to get involved with that.” She cited PG&E’s initiative to help the gap with PowerPathway, a nationally-recognized workforce development model, which has trained hundreds of individuals.
Grainger’s Tools for Tomorrow scholarship program is intended to bridge the gap by helping trade students prepare for jobs. Many community colleges across the U.S. are participating in the program. Grainger partners with the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) to “identify schools that meet the criteria to participate.”
Panelist Bryan Albrecht, president of Gateway Technical College, which has major campuses in Kenosha, Racine and Elkhorn in Wisconsin, agreed that companies have to identify the skills they need and partner with schools to prepare employees. “The continuum of training is something that needs to be thought of as a lifelong process and not just [about] gearing up community colleges and putting [people] back to work,” he said, noting that he will strive to partner with companies, such as Grainger, to help prepare students for jobs.
What do you think? Are employer expectations too high?