People@Work: Plugging the Gap Between Jobs and Skills

job fair unemployment
job fair unemployment

Despite the lingering recession and high unemployment, a vast number of employers worldwide are having difficulty finding workers they need to fill specific jobs. In the U.S., 52% of companies report problems attracting critical-skill employees, while nearly the same number say it's tough to find high-performing, talented workers, according to a recent survey by workplace consultancy Towers Watson and WorldatWork, a nonprofit research organization.

With some 15 million Americans unemployed, it's seemingly incomprehensible as to why companies can't find the talent they need. Part of the problem is that many laid-off workers simply lack the skills needed by employers, says Christopher Collins, professor of human resource management at Cornell University's ILR School.

Some of the hottest jobs that need to be filled in the next 10 to 15 years require technology skills that aren't gained, say, at traditional manufacturing jobs. "Part of it is retooling," Collins says. Workers need to take existing career and life experiences and pursue additional training to become better qualified.

A Worthwhile Effort

That can take time, however. For example, training to become a radiologic technician, an in-demand profession, requires about two years of schooling at a community college or technical school, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And many states require that graduates be certified. Still, the effort can be handsomely rewarded. The mean hourly wage for radiologic techs is $26.05, or $54,160 a year, according to BLS data from May 2009, the most recent available.

Lack of specific skills isn't affecting only seasoned workers' ability to find work. Recent college graduates, too, may find they need additional training. Taking courses in programming and operating large mainframe computers can do a lot to boost graduating seniors' job prospects, says Roger Norton, dean of the School of Computer Science and Mathematics at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

"If a student has on their resume that in their undergraduate curriculum they took some courses in enterprise computing, they are going to get a job," Norton says. "They are going to get very many offers," he says. "There's that much of a shortage."

Students graduating with degrees in computer science, information technology or information systems earn initial salaries of $60,000 to $80,000 a year, Norton says, adding that many graduates also receive signing bonuses of as much as $10,000.

Lacking Interest in 'STEM'

Further, he says, it doesn't take exceptional intelligence to successfully complete such training. Students in Marist's computer science program aren't that much smarter than those in other parts of the college, based on students' average SAT scores, Norton says.

"I don't think there's a lack of aptitude or ability," he says. Rather, it's a lack of interest among students to study science, technology, engineering or mathematics -- known as STEM. "Those are the areas the U.S. is falling far behind everybody else," Norton says. Less than 10% of students in the U.S. go into those particular areas, whereas in India and China, 75% of students are pursuing educational opportunities in STEM fields, he says.

Why aren't young people interested in pursuing such jobs? "It's a perception thing," Norton says. STEM studies just doesn't appear "cool" to many young Americans. But in developing countries, finding a well-paying job is the focus in career choice.

Conversely, the lack of qualified workers in developing nations has less to do with the stigma of STEM areas, but rather is tied to rapid economic growth, says Mike Steinmetz, vice president/general manager of the Manpower's Midwest division. There simply isn't the pool of trained workers to fill jobs in countries such as Brazil and Argentina.

Big Blue Steps Into the Breach

In an effort to attract more students to STEM studies and expand the pool of talent it needs, IBM (IBM) seven years ago began the IBM Academic Initiative, which provides resources to academia such as free software and computing capacity, among other items.

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," says Kevin Faughnan, director of the IBM Academic Initiative.

Big Blue has no way of measuring whether its efforts are producing results, other than anecdotal feedback from college faculty, which generally provide favorable results, Faughnan says.

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Another effort on the part of IBM, known as Smarter Planet, aligns the company's business plan with the growing green movement. "Green is of great interest to young people," Faughnan says, "so you're finding students who, maybe, didn't want to go into engineering or science-related fields are interested in that." Moreover, he says, the appeal is across the board -- from state universities to Ivy League colleges.

IBM believes the initiative is one tool that's helping to attract younger people to STEM studies. (The company also has an initiative for K-12 students, known as TryScience, that introduces students at an early age to science.)

Still, with just 10% of American youth pursing STEM studies, reason for concern remains, Faughnan says. "The more science- and technology-oriented individuals we have," he says, "the better the economy [and] the better that society will be as a result."