The unemployment "skills" myth

Betsey Stevenson.

Kai Ryssdal: So here's another item from the jobs report worth mentioning. The number of long-term unemployed stayed the same last month. About six million people have been out of work for at least 27 weeks.

One thing you hear a lot is that there are jobs out there, but the people for applying 'em don't have the right qualifications. Commentator Betsey Stevenson says that just obscures the real issue.


Betsey Stevenson: As high unemployment lingers, many have been asking whether the unemployed have the right skills for the jobs that are available. After all, there are three million unfilled jobs.

In reality, jobs are like a highly competitive game of musical chairs, with both the unemployed who want a job and the employed who want to change jobs competing to get the available chairs. That means that there are 14 million unemployed and millions more employed competing for the three million chairs that are currently available. That's a very crowded game.

During good times, we typically have two unemployed workers per job vacancy. Today, there are four or five.

Yet many business leaders have complained that they are having a hard time finding qualified workers. But ask them to prioritize, and you'll find that they're far more concerned about finding customers than finding workers. Even among those making the claims, hard-to-find doesn't mean impossible to find. Some positions require someone who is just right for the job, and that means searching hard to find that person.

If firms really were desperate to find skilled workers, then those folks with more skills would find work easily. But older workers are having the hardest time finding jobs, and they have accumulated a career's worth of skills. When age, not education, explains how long it takes to get a job, we know that firms care more about cost than skill.

The recession swept through our nation, eliminating millions of jobs and leaving uprooted workers in its place. It was time and place, not skill, that determined who got hit. We need to create jobs for these folks to make our economy great again. But let's begin by congratulating them on their courage as they battle daily to find work instead of using this so-called "skills" argument. Not so long ago, these folks were integral parts of our economy and they still are.


Ryssdal: Today was Betsey Stevenson's last day as the chief economist at the Department of Labor. She's on her way to Princeton as a visiting professor. Got a comment? Send it in.

About the author

Betsey Stevenson is the former chief economist at the Labor Department.

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