Business Columns & Blogs

Mismatch of jobs, skills may get worse

According to the Employment Security Department, nearly 317,600 people were unemployed in the state of Washington, producing a jobless rate (seasonally adjusted) of 9.1 percent in September.

According to another recent ESD report, the state had more than 60,000 job vacancies.

So let’s do some crude back-of-the-envelope calculations. Matching those 60,000 vacancies to 60,000 job seekers produces an unemployment rate of 7.4 percent. Not great, but a lot better than what we’ve got, and putting that many people back to work might prompt still more hiring.

If only it were that easy.

But it’s not. We have mismatches in where the jobs are vs. where the potential workers are, mismatches in the skills required for many jobs vs. the skills the unemployed have, mismatches between what opportunities employers believe they can offer and what prospects the jobless believe are available.

The mismatch is only going to get worse. Consider this bit of data stemming from Boeing’s production ramp-up at Renton and Everett. Boeing will need 3,500 to 5,000 machinists a year for the next five years, not only to accommodate growth but to replace the large cohort of employees eligible for retirement.

It’s not just Boeing scrambling for workers; so too are the machine and fabrication shops and suppliers and subcontractors also gearing up for Boeing’s production increases (many of whom fear Boeing will answer at least part of its own employment challenge by recruiting from their work forces).

If you’ve not heard about the mismatch you soon will, because it’s a topic that in many business circles is getting more discussion time than the touchy subject of “Recovery? What Recovery?” It’s a problem that will persist well after the recession ends.

The seemingly obvious answer to the problem is: “Move the jobless to where the jobs are and retrain them. Problem solved.”

But no, problem not solved. Many would-be workers don’t have a lot of mobility, because of family or a house that won’t sell.

Furthermore, this is not just a mismatch of numbers. Workers are being asked to remake themselves with new skills for new jobs in unfamiliar industries, and many of them are doing so. But some also harbor an understandable reluctance to commit to the time and expense of shifting to a new career that proves no more permanent than the job they lost.

Where then will employers find workers?

More training programs is another obvious solution, made less obvious by the budgetary constraints on community and technical colleges. Some adjustments are being made to establish training programs that get workers the necessary skills in less time, but that too requires time and money.

Employers are also looking more to veterans, many of whom leave the military with both applicable training and skills.

Expect to hear more calls, especially in technology fields like software, for higher levels of immigration to provide the personnel that U.S. colleges aren’t producing (also expect a lot more arguing over whether U.S. tech companies want cheaper immigrants rather than older American workers).

Many companies are also deciding that they’ll have to do the job themselves: Find people willing to learn and work, and give them the specific skills they need, whether it’s through a formal training system or informally pairing them with mentors within the company.

The current recession is different from other down cycles not just for its depth and length but for how it is reshaping behaviors and attitudes, for individuals, companies and entire industries. One lasting legacy may be a solution to the mismatch, so that when people go looking for jobs, and employers go looking for employees, they actually find each other and like what they find.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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