Skills Gap Grows Ever Wider As Recovery Slogs On

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Lack of qualified job applicantsIt may be difficult to believe, but during this period of stubbornly high unemployment, many jobs are going unfilled because of a lack of qualified applicants.

More than half of companies surveyed report challenges in finding candidates with the right skills, according to a recent report cited in an Op-Ed last week in The Wall Street Journal.

The article, written by U.S. Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.), notes the skills gap has greater impact on smaller businesses, with 67 percent of those polled saying that finding skilled workers was difficult.

Moreover, the lawmakers say, while half of small-business owners hired new workers last year, 42 percent of them hired "fewer [employees] than needed," with a majority citing a lack of qualified applicants as the reason positions went unfilled.

The problem is so acute that some larger companies are taking extraordinary steps to insure schools are educating students in in-demand fields.

For example, IBM, in an effort to ensure it has adequate pool of talent from which to draw, began its so-called IBM Academic Initiative nearly a decade ago.

The programs seeks to attract more students to studies in science, technology, engineering and math -- so-called "STEM" fields -- by providing resources to schools and colleges, including software, computing capacity and more.

IBM needs graduates adept at taking on the challenges facing society, business and government and "to be able to apply technology and come up with innovative solutions ... to solve those problems," Kevin Faughnan, director of the IBM Academic Initiative, recently told AOL's DailyFinance.

Though workers' lack of skills has been a perennial problem in the U.S., the gap between needs of employers and applicants' qualifications has only grown wider as the nascent economic recovery has sputtered in recent months, says Roger Norton, dean of the School of Computer Science and Mathematics at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

"The gap I think is growing actually even wider than it was perhaps a year ago," Norton told AOL Jobs. Despite the rebound in the economy, companies aren't keen on spending money.

"They're not buying technology, they're not doing training ... even though they could," he says.

For job seekers, pay is one good reason to pursue a career in STEM fields. Students graduating with degrees in computer science, information technology or information systems earn initial salaries of $60,000 to $80,000 a year -- and many also receive signing bonuses to encourage them to seal the deal.

While aptitude is important, students shouldn't be dissuaded from pursuing careers in STEM fields for fear that they don't possess the smarts. A review of average SAT scores shows that students enrolled in Marist's computer science program aren't that much smarter than those in other parts of the college, Norton says.

Though the problem won't easily be solved, changing young peoples' perceptions about science, technology, engineering and math-related careers is undoubtedly part of the solution.

Many American teenagers perceive the professions as "uncool," a view not shared by their cohorts in developing nations, where finding a well-paying job is paramount.

Even if perceptions changed overnight, however, filling America's job gap will still take time. Some fields requires years of training and additional education -- and that's if students are prepared -- and can afford -- to begin immediately.

And that's where the federal government could help out. Rather than cutting funding to programs in a desperate yet short-sighted need to curb the deficit, Washington should be funding programs to help boost workers' skills.

As Murray and Landrieu point out, the nation's dearth of skilled workers "is a consequence of our failure to seriously invest in the education of America's workforce."

But until Congress begins to take the problem seriously and starts funding programs to begin tackling it, plenty more jobs will go wanting -- and many more Americans will struggle to find employment.


Next: Young People Take The Economy Into Their Own Hands

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