The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 13, 2013

Our View: Skill gap just part of jobs problem

The Free Press

— It should never be an easy thing to criticize the hiring practices of American companies. After all, who knows better than they what they’re looking for in an employee?

But American business’ growing tendency to rely heavily on online applications seems unconvincing, and a study by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) appears to bear that out. Researchers said electronic applications that use key words to match job seekers with placements hasn’t been a great success.

The study proposed several other interesting findings. Popular theories on the “skills gap” suggests that many jobs go unfilled due to the inability of employers to locate workers with the right training, but DEED researchers say that part of the problem rests with uncompetitive wages and undesirable locations or work shifts.

The study centered upon occupational groups that were deemed difficult to find workers for, and about 200 Minnesota employers were interviewed, including 1,500 job vacancies in question. Employers said hiring difficulty involved 45 percent of the vacancies, but in only about a third of those vacancies (and 15 percent of all openings) a lack of skills was the sole factor.

Manufacturing proved particularly intriguing. According to the survey, manufacturing jobs requiring a high school diploma or less were particularly hard to fill. The fact that many high schools have lessened their focus on industrial technology training, coupled with the perception that there is less demand for manufacturing jobs in the U.S., were cited as factors.

It is true, manufacturing jobs are not in the abundance that they used to be. But the idea that careers in manufacturing are not worth the effort is largely unfounded. Steve Lackner, human resources manager for Lakeland Mold in Brainerd, said his company would hire more workers if he could find them with the necessary skills. Lackner believes high schools, in their desire to point students in the direction of college, have overlooked careers that don’t always require a college education. “There are good jobs, good wages, good livings in manufacturing. It’s no longer dirty, dark and dangerous,” he said.

The DEED study is one to study — by employers, by high school students making career choices, by high school and college educators, and by government agencies who exist for the purpose of matching job-seekers to the right positions. The DEED study doesn’t under-report the skills issue — in 87 percent of all vacancies, it reveals, a skills gap is at least part of the problem. But employers who put too heavy a stress on skills, to overlook other factors potential employees care about, also run a risk.

One issue many employers might consider adjusting is their emphasis on online applications. They might consider that their reliance on letting computers sift through applicants fails to appreciate the obvious advantages of face-to-face interviews. It used to be that job-seekers could go straight to the traditional interview process, but we are hearing more complaints these days that potential employees are experiencing difficulty getting past the online application process — filling out long forms of requests for personal information, doing time-consuming tests, and then ... waiting in vain for the courtesy of a phone call.