Is There Really a Skills Gap in America?

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I confess that most of the reading I do about recruiting comes from inside our industry; that is, targeted websites and articles written by recruiting experts. Every once in awhile though, I think it’s good to go to general news sources and see what they’re saying about recruiting and trying to build jobs in America. I highly recommend a recent article in the New Yorker titled “Mind the Gap” by James Surowiecki.

The topic is the concept of the “skills gap” we all keep hearing about. The conventional wisdom is that there are lots of jobs out there, but Americans don’t have the right skills to fill them. While the author concedes that may be true for some industries like construction and engineering, it seems that for the most part, the evidence on a skills gap is shaky:

A series of recent studies have found that the skills mismatch is very limited in scope. Furthermore, when you look at the list of slots that business say are among the toughest to fill, you find jobs like sales rep and office support—hardly specialized occupations. The workers are out there, but companies just aren’t hiring them.

I think Surowiecki has a point, and I also believe he’s correct that often when we say candidates don’t have the right skills, we’re really talking about experience. The spotlight and perceived risk is so bright on each new hire that companies don’t just want someone who could do the job, but someone who has done the job, and, for many Americans that creates the old workforce Catch-22: you can’t get a job without experience, and you can’t get experience without a job. In some ways, perhaps that contradiction is starker now than at any time in recent memory.

Employers tend to let the perfect become the enemy of the good: seeing an overwhelming number of reasonable applicants makes them less likely to pick one. They know it will be easy to hire later, after all, and maybe the next person through the door will be a perfect fit.

To be honest, I think it’s something we’re all a bit guilty of. For example, I know a lot of my co-workers, if given an opportunity, would probably excel in just about any job out there, whether their experience matched the job description or not. The problem for many Americans is that they are increasingly less likely to get that chance now. This raises another Catch-22: because of the volume of resumes and candidates coming every day into an organization’s TAS, it’s absolutely necessary to have automated screening and sourcing tools, but it also quickly removes from consideration those who might be a great asset to an organization, but don’t “match” the job req’s profile.

The article closes with a bit of a shot at American businesses:

In a weak economy most companies worry less about getting every possible dollar of new business than they do about keeping costs down. That makes them slow to hire, which keeps unemployment high, which in turns makes employers more reluctant to hire. This is perfectly understandable…still, if you want to know why businesses aren’t hiring, the answer isn’t the skills gap. They just aren’t trying that hard.

What are your thoughts? Is this is an uncomfortable truth or an unfair exaggeration?


About Tony Rosato

Tony Rosato, Alstin's Vice President, Client Development, is the most well-traveled member of our team and one of the nicest guys we know. Sharing his 20 years of industry experience with prospective clients everywhere, Tony's Type A personality is powered by premium iced tea (but never chocolate).