Want to cut unemployment?
Just fill the 14,700 job openings in the Omaha area with some of the 22,000 unemployed people in the Omaha area. That would leave about 7,300 people looking for work out of a labor force of 472,000, a 1.5 percent unemployment rate that any city would envy.
But as every job seeker and HR officer knows, jobs and people don't always fit together.
The mismatch is getting attention in today's economy, where the nation's stubborn 8.1 percent unemployment rate translates into 12.5 million people looking for work at a time when 3.8 million jobs are open, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates.
Are American workers less educated, less capable, than the modern job market requires?
Or are today's cautious employers saving money on training and salaries while waiting for the exact right person to apply for each opening?
The answers may determine whether unemployment will drop as the economy recovers or whether there will be long-term “structural” unemployment created by a gap between job seekers' education and skills and the increasing demands of the jobs to be done.
Take Phil Thomas, whose job managing software licenses for Hewlett-Packard was outsourced to Guadalajara, Mexico, last October. After health problems, bankruptcy and divorce, he's living with a relative in Lincoln and going through a $7.25-an-hour federal training program to brush up his office skills.
“Employers just don't seem willing to train as much as they used to,” said Thomas, 62. “Even if you meet the job requirements, they want three or four years of experience.”
He sees job descriptions that are either so vague that it seems the company doesn't know what it wants, or so detailed that almost nobody is qualified. “Those jobs have gone wanting for months.”
Because he has a master's degree and decades of work experience, employers and their application-screening software sometimes rule him out as overqualified even though, at this point in his life, he's willing to take a job that pays less and calls for less education.
A recent Brookings Institution study of unemployed people and job openings found an education mismatch, especially among unemployed people lacking college degrees that jobs require.
Jonathan Rothwell, who wrote the report, said the findings indicate the need to focus on improving the match between education and available jobs. “Community colleges could benefit from looking carefully at job openings in their metropolitan areas,” he said.
In addition, he said, young people can be assured that it takes an education to get a good job. “Labor force participation rates are much lower for less-educated workers,” with many more of them becoming discouraged and dropping out of the job market altogether.
“It really presents a dismal picture of people without formal educations,” Rothwell said.
Among the top 100 metropolitan areas, Omaha had the 18th-best match between workers and jobs and Des Moines the 24th-best.
Rothwell said the two cities' relatively high education levels help bridge the gap. “Over a number of decades there's been a shift in favor of more educated workers in terms of what employers are looking for,” Rothwell said. “In both (Omaha and Des Moines), there's a high level of education relative to what companies are demanding.”
But another expert argues that any gap is worsened, if not created, by companies accustomed to overqualified employees and unwilling to train. Peter Cappelli, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, is the author of “Why Good People Can't Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It.”
Cappelli said he doesn't agree with the Brookings study's assumption that a worker's education must match job requirements and its conclusion that U.S. workers lack the right education.
“The research that compares actual job requirements to the education of those in the jobs finds that U.S. workers are on average overqualified for their jobs and that the amount of over-qualification is growing,” he said. Some job descriptions are written too specifically, he maintains.
Cappelli argues that the “skills gap” is really a training gap. He writes that in 1979, young workers received an average of 2˝ weeks of training per year. By last year, only 21 percent said they received any training at all during the previous five years.
Workers can be under- or overqualified and still perform their jobs, he said, citing the example of a bartender with a degree in classical literature. “College grads certainly can and do take jobs that require less education. The reason their unemployment rate is lower is because they bump out the high school grads for jobs that require only a high school degree.”
In Omaha, Tyler Tilmon's work history at Walmart and the fast-food business, plus his high school diploma, qualified him for a production job at Airlite Plastics Co. On a recent morning, certified trainer Lillie Dortch gave Tilmon pointers on how to package plastic lids that spun out of a molding machine.
While he fits that job today, he's on the way to qualifying for a better job because he's also a full-time student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Airlite trains all its employees, training manager Crystal Olson said. “It's very important that we invest in them when they come in the front door. We want our customers to get the best products they can.”
Employers like Airlite win their workers' loyalty by providing good training, said Peggy Noll, a board member of the Human Resources Association of the Midlands.
But today, only employers with an urgent need take the risk of adding employees, she said, and they search for a person who can step right in with little or no training.
“Even though we've been lucky in Omaha and in the Midwest, we really haven't had a recovery,” Noll said. Business owners remain uncertain about the economy and about taxes, regulation and government-influenced costs such as health care.
That uncertainty means many employers are looking for exact matches for job openings, said Willem Van Zandweghe, who has studied long-term unemployment as a senior economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Mo. “Once the economy picks up, that can't last. Employers cannot be so picky.”
He said the economy, not an education gap, is keeping unemployment stubbornly high. Once employers see sales starting to rise or other concrete evidence of economic growth, “then I think hiring would take hold. They can't continue to squeeze more effort out of the same people.”
Even today, some employers who need workers are hiring people who may not have all the desired qualities. Interpublic Group's Omaha office has hired some recent college graduates with accounting backgrounds but without the ideal two to five years' experience, said human resources director Nancy Stessman. “We're willing to do that because of our growth. We need the people.”
Interpublic is a global advertising firm. Its Omaha office does accounting and other administrative functions for the company, and increased demand means it has hired about 100 people in the past year and a half. Interpublic gets about 35 applications for each entry-level opening, but many are new college graduates without experience.
Older college graduates also can face other challenges.
Katherine Hershey, 63, of Omaha and 13 others were let go from State of Nebraska social service jobs in October. She has a part-time, temporary job but wants full-time work. Her master's degree in library science makes her overqualified for some jobs, yet her computer-related library skills are outdated or incomplete.
At one library, she said, “I was told that I had no current relevant experience. I thought that was interesting that they would need relevant experience for an entry-level job. Excuse me — that makes me wonder what folks are looking for.”
Hershey signed up for a program through Goodwill Industries aimed at getting older workers back into jobs.
When employers don't train, the burden can fall on programs supported by taxpayers and private foundations.
Jan Kauk is executive director of Heartland Workforce Solutions, a private agency that funnels about $2.7 million in federal Department of Labor dollars and $400,000 in private funds annually to subcontractors and to individuals in need of job training and preparation.
The agency will open a new, one-stop Career Center this week at 58th Street and Ames Avenue, offering a wider variety of services than at its previous location at the Blue Lion Center at 24th and Lake Streets.
Besides Heartland's staff of five, the center will house a range of other offices, including those dealing with senior workers, veterans and Native Americans. Heartland subcontracts with Goodwill Industries and other agencies to provide services to about 600 adults and 600 youths.
Kauk said the agency offers basic skill training that employers can't afford. For example, a person with a disrupted childhood may need to learn how to show up on time, dress properly for work, arrange transportation and deal with child care.
An immigrant may need language training. An ex-manufacturing worker may need to learn about robotics. A displaced worker, let go from one occupation, may need upgraded computer skills. Others need to be matched with employers or to take classes toward high school equivalency certificates.
The agency works with employers and with Metro Community College and Iowa Western Community College to offer classes that will help people qualify for better-paying jobs.
Metro finds that there are two general types of skills gaps in the workforce, said Jim Grotrian, executive vice president: Basics, such as reading, math, writing and science, and career skills, such as welding or construction systems.
Businesses may rely on community colleges to teach core competencies and then provide specialized training themselves, he said.
Grotrian said there's evidence that the recession particularly hurt the “middle-skilled worker” — employees who had livable-wage jobs that were eliminated or combined. Those workers were qualified for their former jobs but might need new skills for new positions.
Metro's staff and leaders, he said, “have a passion to build that back into our economy.
“We need to be in tune with what (employers) are looking for, making sure our curriculum is relevant so (graduates) can hit the ground running.”
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