Kai Ryssdal: As Rick Santorum basks in the glow of his wins in Alabama and Mississippi last night and Mitt Romney focuses on the actual delegate count, voters have their own things they're worried about. We've been asking what that might be this week for our election coverage, The Real Economy.
Today, Beth Kelly. She helps businesses fill empty job openings, which isn't always as easy as it sounds.
Beth Kelly: I am a human resources professional in Michigan. I help small- and medium-sized businesses find qualified employees. And I've got a front-row seat to the widening skills gap.
Most employers are ready to hire, but they can't find the talent they need. You wouldn't think that would be the case in Michigan. Unemployment is still 9 percent. But it is, and this skills gap is worrying business leaders who want to grow their companies and create jobs.
There's a combination of factors pushing this gap even wider. First, skill requirements -- especially in manufacturing -- have risen so much in the last couple years that it's hard enough to keep up to date when you're working every day, let alone when you're unemployed. Second, a lot of Michigan's talent moved on to other states when jobs disappeared here. And it's a challenge to recruit people back, especially given the state's reputation.
Michigan's economy is coming back, though, and we're trying different things to fill the skills gap. Community colleges have developed some innovative training programs and some church groups are offering transitional services and counseling for those who are out of work.
Still, we could use some help from our policy makers. Unfortunately, the chronically unemployed still face a stigma in the workplace -- and technology advancements of the past few years may have passed them by. Instead of extending unemployment benefits, let's reinvest those dollars into worker retraining programs that build skills, confidence, and work ethic. We also need to improve our talent supply chain, starting at early childhood. As an employer, I need to know that the high school graduate I hire is capable of applied math, reading, writing, and problem solving.
Our economic survival hinges on fixing our very broken public education system. I believe we're on the cusp of another economic expansion and that the biggest constraint we have right now is human capital. Filling the skills gap is the most important issue for me this election year.
Beth Kelly is a source with the Public Insight Network.