A panel of workforce experts met last week at the Aspen Institute’s Washington, D.C., office to talk about challenges in the skilled trades — why utilities, technical firms, factories and other employers end up with up to 40 open positions on their websites while more than 20 million Americans are hunting for work. Panelists couldn’t agree on a solution — or even, really, over the nature of the problem — but they all seemed to think that more could be done to help dedicated workers find jobs.

“You’ll hear the problem is the schools,” moderator and PBS NewsHour correspondent Ray Suarez said. “Well, we’ve had times of near full employment in our history where the schools were pretty terrible, educating a small number of people to high standards and a large number of people to a mediocre one. You’ll hear the problem is employers, who, at a time of rising productivity and slack demand together, are able to demand exotic combinations of talent and experience and hold jobs permanently open in a way different from what they would have done at a time of high labor demand. Or the problem is training. Or secondary education.”

Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, doesn’t believe there is skill shortage, at least not from employers’ point of view. Cappelli said companies are demanding more starting with pre-hire certifications. If employers truly were hurting in terms of talent, he said, they would teach it.

“After World War II, when the labor market was very tight, you never heard [talk of a skill shortage],” Capelli noted. “The reason was because employers handled this whole process by themselves: They hired people out of high school, they trained them … because it was the employer’s responsibility. The complaints that we’re hearing more recently come from the fact that employers have backed out of this.”

Jim Ryan, whose company Grainger co-hosted the event, also said employers who aren’t finding the workers they need should “get off the bench” in making that happen. “Companies, if they’ve been on the sidelines, can no longer stay [there],” Ryan said. They are going to “have to take some responsibility in investing in training and education.”

While some companies are large and ambitious enough to deal with this prospect on their own, Gateway Technical College President Bryan Albrecht emphasized that, for others, the best way to tackle this issue is with private-public partnerships centering around local education. “Building that conversation around what expectations are” for an area’s population to turn into a viable workforce, he said, is critical. He encouraged employers to reach out to local community colleges and secondary education centers and tell them how to turn their students into your hires.

“Make those calls and find out what’s happening in your community,” Albrecht said, “because it’s likely there is a best practices going on.” His school hits its home state of Wisconsin’s technical college average of an 88% employment-placement ratio for students. “How does all that happen?” he asks. “Well, it happens because of our relationships with employers.”

There’s also no substitute to on-the-job training, the type that’s occurring at Pacific Gas and Electric, according to Yonnie Leung, PG&E’s senior manager for workforce development.

“We have, at any given point, 500 apprentices in a PG&E program,” she said. “But I think what’s important … is working with the educational institutions and even community-based training organizations around letting them know what programs, what skill sets, what qualifications we need. It’s like working with a supply chain: you can’t expect your vendors to provide you with a product if you don’t tell them what the specs are.”

Cappelli said, above and beyond training, companies need to shift their expectations and recruiting practices. “A lot of the hiring dynamics have changed,” he said, with much of the screening and scanning now done by software that can miss rare talent.

Still, there’s reason to hope, Ryan said: “The reason I’m optimistic about this is because when companies wake up and figure out this is a matter of competitive survival, they’ll do something about it.”

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