Why Jobs Go Unfilled Even in Times of High Unemployment

Companies say too many applicants just don't have the right skills. Partnerships between employers and community colleges are looking to fix that.

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Skills for America's Future, a policy initiative run out of the Aspen Institute, was created in 2010 as a spin-off of President Obama's Jobs Council and was originally led by longtime Obama supporter Penny Pritzker. With Pritzker now installed as the new Commerce secretary, Aspen announced earlier this week that the skills-training program will continue with executives from Snap-On and Gap at the helm.

In the wake of that news, National Journal talked with René Bryce-Laporte, the outgoing program manager for Skills for America's Future, about the challenges of training workers in an economy where employees can expect to develop new skills consistently throughout their careers--even if they have the increasingly rare experience of staying in the same field or even with the same company. Bryce-Laporte has spent more than 15 years working in policy and advocacy around the issues of providing social and economic opportunity to low- and middle-income Americans. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow. 

The U.S. has an unemployment rate over 7 percent, yet as we've been traveling around the country, we constantly hear from employers that they can't fill positions, particularly those that require higher skills. How is that possible?

One of the reasons Skills for America's Future was started was that the Jobs Council kept hearing from employers concerned that they had jobs remaining open because they couldn't find workers with the skills they needed. The idea was to create an initiative to work with community colleges, and to promote partnerships between them and businesses to match education and training to employment opportunities.

The precise number of jobs that remain unfilled is elusive, but we know that the number is high. Now, jobs sometimes go unfilled because of natural fluctuation in the workplace--somebody leaves a job and it stays open for a few months. There are some observers who say that the idea of a skills gap is overstated, that vacancies persist because employers can't find people with the skills they need at the rate they're willing to pay. But it is true that employers complain they have a hard time finding workers with the skills they need. About 40 years ago, only one in four jobs required more than a high school education, but now about two in three jobs require more training. And workers now really need to think of learning as a lifelong task. That's a huge shift from the days when you did one job that never changed for one employer and then you retired.

Working in a factory requires a different kind of skill than it used to--the same is true in agriculture, even. I serve on a board in Arkansas, and we went to a town in the Delta that has a farm that used to have a couple hundred people working in the field. Now it employs two people, operating all the machines.

I've seen some surveys with employers who talk about problems finding workers with traditional workplace skills--showing up to work on time, having basic literacy, needing workers who can problem-solve. That's not new technology in play--some employers have always complained about these skills being absent.

It's interesting that you mention those basic skills, because it's definitely not what we think of when we hear "job training."

Yeah, those are some of the job-readiness skills that some people still overlook. There are employers who now work with community colleges to develop certificates that help show that a worker is ready. The National Career Readiness Certificate basically tests those kinds of skills I was talking about--can they read for information, locate information, do math? The standardized test is administrated by the testing service ACT and evaluates a student's preparedness for the workplace. Bison Gear, a manufacturer in Illinois, makes sure all of its employees have passed the NCRC as a requirement of employment.

So when we talk about more training or education, it doesn't necessarily mean getting more people through four-year colleges.

That's right. Not every kid has to be ready to go to Harvard or Columbia or Michigan. More training could mean a professional training school. Or community colleges, which are great places to go to get a degree or specialized skills that are of value to an employer.

The average district tuition and fees for community colleges is $3,130 per year while state school tuition and fees are now $8,660 each year. So the cost is not nothing, but it's much more affordable, and particularly if you're targeting certifications. Almost half of community college students receive financial aid. And there are employers who will subsidize the cost of school for workers.

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Amy Sullivan is a correspondent for National Journal and the director of the Next Economy Project. More

Amy Sullivan is a writer and former senior editor at TIME Magazine who covers politics, religion and culture. She previously served as the magazine's nation editor and as editor of The Washington Monthly. Her first book, The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap, was published by Scribner in 2008. She was a 2009 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science & Religion.

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