January 5, 2013

Job skills gap? Skeptic says factors tell another story

The author says companies don’t invest in the work force and demand more than ever from job applicants, including a willingness to accept insufficient wages.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Shrader says the company is looking to hire 10 more people, but is having trouble filling the jobs.

He agrees with Cappelli that companies should invest in work-force training. That's why Arundel Machine Tool has an internal mentoring program, he said.

Additionally, Shrader said, his company has used a multipronged recruitment effort. It works with the community college system to hire skilled workers, it trains and hires applicants straight out of high school and it promotes from within.

"We have more work-force training now than we ever have," Shrader said of the company, which was established in 1985.

He said his biggest challenge is finding applicants with "soft skills," people who show up on time, want to learn and are eager to work. Shrader says such abilities are likely taught at home, not school.

That echoes Cappelli's research, which cites a 2011 DeVry Career Advisory Board survey listing the top 15 employee attributes that business managers identified as key to their success. Only one, communications skills, is an academic subject.

"We have to go all the way to No. 8 on the list to find something that could be taught explicitly in schools (oral communication) and 14th on the list to find a traditional academic subject (reading)," Cappelli wrote.

Similarly, a 2009 Business Roundtable survey found that managers' biggest complaints about employees were work attitudes and self-management skills.

Manufacturers have become leading skills gap advocates.

A recent report from the Manufacturing Institute showed that more than 600,000 manufacturing jobs nationwide were unfilled because employers couldn't find workers.

In December, the National Tooling and Machining Association conducted a survey with 164 metalworking businesses, most family-owned and with an average of 65 employees.

The survey found that 67 percent of the businesses had current job openings and 20 percent of those same businesses had at least six vacancies. More than 90 percent said they were experiencing "severe or moderate" recruiting challenges.

Wage levels and wage stagnation are key points of friction on the skills gap issue.

According to U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, manufacturing machinists made a median wage of $43,800 in Maine in 2011. That's slightly higher than the national median of $40,520. Wages in the profession have increased -- but only slightly higher than the cost of living.

Cappelli argues that stagnant wages undercut the skills gap theory. He says that a real skills shortage means that employers can't find candidates at the market wages.

But Shrader and Paul Nathanson, spokesman for the National Tooling and Machining Association, counter that raising wages belies the reality that American companies are competing globally.

"Middle market manufacturers cannot simply charge more for their products, because their customers won't pay it," Nathanson said. "They can source the same product from overseas, where labor markets are much cheaper."

The Southern Maine Community College skills gap study singled out other occupations where wage stagnation may be an issue. The study cited Bureau of Labor Statistics data that showed flat to moderate wage growth in hospitality and construction trades. In both categories, wages fail to keep pace with annual cost of living increases.

The skills gap issue has nuances that vary among industries and employers.

At Idexx Laboratories in Westbrook, which makes diagnostic tests and instruments for livestock and poultry, the demand for skilled, experienced workers has never been higher.

Ann Marie Martin, the new head of Idexx recruitment, said the challenge in Maine lies in filling technology positions, software engineers and developers. She estimated that the company has 15 job openings just in those fields, some of which have been vacant for more than a year.

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