Companies Say 3 Million Unfilled Positions in Skill Crisis: Jobs

By Lorraine Woellert – Jul 24, 2012 11:00 PM CT

“Moving furniture does not have a direct impact on patient care,” said Smith, who started his training in 2008. “I wanted a career, earning a larger salary and making a more significant difference.”

Even with almost 13 million Americans looking for work and 8 million more settling for part-time jobs, almost half the 1,361 U.S. employers surveyed in January by ManpowerGroup say they can’t find workers to fill positions. At the same time, American employers are less likely than their counterparts overseas to invest in training, the Milwaukee-based staffing company reported last month.

Companies have reported more than 3 million job openings every month since February 2011, according to the Department of Labor.

To narrow the skills gap, employers are teaming up with philanthropies, governments and community colleges to develop a ready resource: their existing workforce. The practice, known as upskilling, builds on the “up from the mailroom” idea, the management philosophy that the best person for a job could be one a company already has.

Hospitals Lead

Hospitals, which experienced a nursing shortage more than a decade ago, in particular are turning to their own staff to cultivate technicians and nurses, said Fred Dedrick, executive director of the National Fund for Workforce Solutions. The Boston-based nonprofit organization partners with companies and governments to set up regional training cooperatives.

Children’s Hospital is part of one such group, a three- state effort called Partners for a Competitive Workforce. The consortium’s five health-care members have identified the skills they need and joined forces to design training programs.

“It’s a grow-your-own strategy,” said partnership Executive Director Ross Meyer. “We are seeing employers stepping up because they’re not getting their needs met. We’ve leveraged public, philanthropic and private dollars to fill the gap.”

Training Pool

The potential training pool can include housekeepers, clerks, low-skilled technicians and cafeteria workers. Some have no formal training beyond high school and haven’t been inside a classroom in decades.

Besides hospitals, factories and construction companies are reviving apprenticeships and collaborating with community colleges and each other to develop courses. The Department of Labor spends about $7 billion a year to fund jobs training and other workforce development.

Most companies are using that support to avoid layoffs or train existing employees, said Jane Oates, assistant secretary for employment and training at the Department of Labor.

“You get a new worker of any age who comes into a job, I don’t care how qualified they are on paper, you don’t know how they’re going to work,” she said. With an existing employee, “you know they’ve come to work for the last X years.”

Grooming Workers

Grooming incumbent workers fell out of favor with the rise of information technology and the knowledge and service economies, which created demand for highly specific skills and led to certification programs and other types of education, said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, in Washington.

“‘Qualified’ used to mean a high school degree,” Carnevale said. “Now the qualification level has gone up so they’re pressing for better people.”

Technical proficiency isn’t always enough. Employers also report a shortage of what they call “soft skills,” including the ability to solve problems, think critically and work in teams. Workers who exhibit such traits can be candidates to train for higher-skilled jobs.

“They’d prefer to buy the skill rather than have to make it, but the skill base in the workforce is not there,” Carnevale said.

Efforts like Cincinnati’s remain highly localized and no match for the growing skills gap. By 2020, employers worldwide could face a shortage of 85 million high- and medium-skilled workers, according to a June report from the McKinsey Global Institute in Washington.

‘Market Responses’

“Business-as-usual market responses won’t be enough,” said Susan Lund, McKinsey director of research. “Rather than wait to fix the whole educational system, companies are saying, ‘Let’s just work in a micro way to do what we can do now.’”

One challenge is that programs must be tailored to local needs. In 2003, the Port of Seattle opened Airport University on the main concourse of Sea-Tac International. The classroom program, free to workers, was partly a response to airlines’ increasing reliance on contractors for food service, cleaning and other tasks. The shift left many airport laborers with jobs, including operating the airport’s wheelchairs, that offered little opportunity for advancement.

Denise Johnson was earning $8.55 an hour as a manicurist at a Sea-Tac nail salon when Airport University recruited her. The classes fit her work schedule, said the single mother. She expects to graduate with an associate’s degree in hospitality and tourism next summer and plans to start a business or non- profit, perhaps helping other young women obtain job skills. In the meantime, Johnson, 27, now earns $15 an hour as an office assistant at Airport University.

Apprentice Program

In Pennsylvania, Aker Philadelphia Shipyard (AKPS) won state help to revive a dormant apprentice program for welders last year, graduating 20 people in February. The company plans to bring 20 more on board in August, Vice President Mike Giantomaso said.

Working with a $7,000 city grant, Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore started offering free classes to workers in 2010. Marina Vargas-Deise was among the first to enroll. She had been caring for elderly patients — brushing teeth, changing diapers and delivering food trays — since 2006.

After passing courses in anatomy, physiology, math and medical terminology at Bayview, Vargas-Deise enrolled at the Community College of Baltimore County, graduating in May. Now she can draw blood, perform heart tests and conduct other clinical work. She’s studying for her medical assistant’s license.

New Career

“I wasn’t informed about how to start a new career,” Vargas-Deise said. “I didn’t even know what I needed.” She looks forward to more interesting work, better pay and more responsibility.

Bayview will get a reliable, time-tested worker with skills in short supply.

“When you’re hiring off the street you don’t know who you’re getting,” said Bayview Career Specialist Karen Jones. “It’s better to tap your resources from within. You have people who know the hospital, they have a good work ethic. We’d rather work with them and move them up the pipeline.”

Cincinnati’s Smith also was a known quantity when he applied for training at Children’s Hospital. His first classes, in math and chemistry, were taught on the hospital campus in conjunction with Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. When he passed, he was eligible to enroll in school full-time, with tuition paid for in advance by his employer.

“I worked my butt off, didn’t call off. I always came to work,” he said. “That same dependability, that same toughness, I’m just taking it to another level.”