The unemployment rate dropped to 3.9% in April, and many companies say they can’t find enough workers.
But if there’s a national labor shortage, many workers sure aren’t feeling it. The portion of adult Americans who have a job or want one is historically low—which shouldn’t be the case if the demand for labor is so strong. Wages are barely growing, another sign of hidden weakness in the labor market. Median household income, adjusted for inflation, is just 1.8% higher than it was in 2000, according to Sentier Research. Economists think one reason employers have 6.6 million unfilled jobs is a growing “skills mismatch” that has left many workers unprepared for rapid technological change.
The low unemployment rate, in fact, may mask a number of chronic problems in the labor force and deceive policymakers into thinking the economy is stronger than it is. At the Milken Institute’s recent Global Conference in Los Angeles, I moderated a panel discussion that explored some of these distortions in the labor force, along with possible solutions. (Watch the panel discussion.) The upshot for workers is both discouraging and heartening. On one hand, there are pernicious barriers that prevent workers from finding jobs they’re well-suited for. So if you’re a frustrated job-seeker, maybe the problem isn’t you. The good news is that some companies and public officials recognize the problem and are working on solutions. Here are four insights from the Milken discussion:
Businesses are used to a loose labor market, not a tight one. Until recently, most businesses got all the workers they needed simply by fielding job applications. Only now are they starting to recruit more aggressively, and they don’t necessarily know how to do it. “Employers are actually not that good at letting us know what jobs they’re struggling to fill and what skills they need,” Chauncy Lennon of JPMorgan Chase said at the Milken conference. “Sometimes they’re just not going to tell you. Sometimes they don’t know and therefore can’t tell us.”
There are problems involving job titles and credentialing, for instance, which in many cases aren’t standardized and vary from company to company. So two companies could use the same job description yet be referring to jobs that are considerably different. Companies are also used to getting workers trained someplace else, such as at another company or a school. Some companies are reestablishing in-house training they thought they didn’t need, but laggards don’t yet have the staff, expertise or willingness to do it themselves.
Job sites are out of date. Virtually every job-seeker knows the frustration of sending dozens of resumes and hearing nary a peep, as if you don’t exist. “A lot of these services are all garbage,” Pradeep Khosla, chancellor of the University of California, San Diego, said at the Milken conference. “They’re just collecting resumes for your name and number and your zip code and then selling it for advertising.” Hiring services often employ software that searches for keywords on a resume, such as a programming language you may have experience in or a particular college major. But that approach often misses job applicants who might easily be able to learn to do a job they haven’t done before. “It’s about capabilities, not the actual skills, per se,” said Daphne Kis of Worldquant University, a nonprofit focused on education. “You can have 20 careers over your lifetime. You want to find people who have the capability to reengineer their lives.”
More humans in the hiring process might help. Also needed: an accurate online database that helps workers understand which skills are in demand where, how much the jobs pay, and where to find training. Employers could also give more potential workers tryouts, expanding, for instance, the concept of internships further up the job chain. At the Milken conference, Jane Oates, president of the nonprofit group Working Nation, referred to Northrup Grumman, which hires most of its workers from a pool of interns. “They’re getting a look at people on the job in their own plants and their own offices, and figuring out, are those the match for me,” Oates said. “It’s not just about Robert De Niro in a funny movie. We need to give internships to older workers.”
Schools start way too late preparing students for a career. Many parents feel it’s imperative their kids go to college, yet there are still millions of “middle-skill” jobs that don’t require a college degree. At the high-school level, however, most students are mystified about how to get started on a career. That’s partly the fault of ineffective school districts, but employers could also do more to connect with local schools, help establish curricula that will train students properly and build a pipeline that leads to actual jobs.
Some states, such as Colorado and Delaware, are working to fix this, by adopting European-style apprenticeship programs in which kids work part-time in a career-focused job while going to school, learning valuable technical skills along with academics. “There’s not a governor in the country that’s not talking about how he’s moving his state system to have more career technical education,” Lennon said. Some states, of course, will fare better than others.
Community colleges are an underused resource. Community colleges are supposed to be a bridge between high school and college, in some cases preparing students for a four-year university and in others teaching select skills meant to lead to a specific career. Many, however, have been overlooked as an education backwater. “Community colleges were a great idea we just left by the wayside,” Khosla said at the conference. He’d like to see them repurposed to help mid-career workers who need to learn a new field. “Community college would be a good pathway to go and get reenergized and retrained,” he said. “We’re not exploiting that well enough.” And companies and workers are both suffering.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman