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.

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Betsey Stevenson is the former chief economist at the Labor Department.
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Please remember that the skills requirements for most jobs are not fixed in concrete. A manager writes a job requirement and the hiring channel uses that to seek candidates.

When times are bad, hiring managers start thinking, "There are a lot of good people out there. I don't want to join them. I need to show my boss I can find Zippo the Wonder Candidate."

So they start raising the requirements bar. When none of the candidates meets the requirements -- looky there, no one had the skills. See, there's a skills shortage among job applicants.

Dr. Laurence C. Breiterman could improve his basic English with his errors in verb tense, noun plurals, and misspelling before disparaging job seekers' lack of skills.

Dear Betsy,
I listened to your comments and really have to disagree. I am the owner of an upscale dental office in northern New Jersey. I havve been looking within my field for an office manager for a year. I have not been received resumes with anyone with applicable qualifications. Maybe you can help. Applicants should have skills in Microsoft Word and Excel, have great customer service skills (i.e. actually like people) and have a good head on their shoulder. They are expected to help take my business to the next level. Dental skills aren't necessary, but the desire to learn is a must. The job is full time and some nights and weekends are required. If you no anyone who fits the bill, send them my way and we will lower the unemployment rosters by one.


Laurence C. Breiterman


I asked the exact same question to the person in charge of a associate degree in manufacturing in a college here in Florida. The program was created after they surveyed potential incoming manufacturing companies to the State of Florida, a few years before the "great recession" hit.

He answered that this was exactly what companies said. They said, we don't bring jobs to Florida because there is lack of "skills". He mentioned the example of those trained in programmable logic controllers (for automation). He said that companies couldn't hire them fast enough.

Of course, that used to be a skill that companies would train for themselves, and the "skills" myth is JUST an excuse. They just don't want to invest in training someone, and instead invest in human resources trying to snitch workers that are already working at other companies.

Another reason why I think companies are just using "skills" as an excuse is the fact that they are just too ready to hire overseas. I have dealt with workers from outside the USA, and I can tell you that in general US workers have a much higher job etiquette than workers outside of the US. It takes far more resources (in terms of manhours / not $) to manage a workforce outside.

It's much simpler than you think. US jobs are moving to India by millions. As an example consider the 15000 employees that were laid off at Cisco over the summer. All those jobs moved to India. Who keeps track of our jobs deficit with India? Nobody. Outsourcing to India doesn't lower cost, but that's what Wall Street is telling businesses to do. What's our president doing about it? Nothing, he doesn't even acknowledge the problem.

It's not the lack of skills, it's the lack of credentials. If you ain't got the right degree or certificate you won't get the interview. Most of those older workers learned their skills long before there was a degree or certificate in that field and the cost and time to get that credential is prohibitive. The problem is not employers or cost, it's caused by using the wrong HR filters.

"But older workers are having the hardest time finding jobs"

As a 2009 college grad, and seeing the data on youth unemployment I have a hard time believing that.

"We need to create jobs for these folks to make our economy great again."
The important word is WE. The govt cannot create jobs. If we want jobs, we have to buy products manufactured in America by American workers. Econ 101.

Hopefully next DoL Chief Economist will be less theoretical and more aware of reality. Very often older workers skills are outdated, they have become myopic in work approach and strategies and become impatient when tired tactics are unsuccessful. Due to such inflexibility and antiquated methods, many employers deem them to be less desirable than more youthful employees who are motivated to work hard and become independent self-sufficient adults ... that is unless the employer is seeking highly specialized skills or instant relationships.

Many older workers need retraining. Or, leverage skills they have at going market rate. For example, older workers tend to have much better typing/data entry skills due to being required to take a typing course in high school than those under 30 who never took a typing course. -- There is a very good reason data entry and transcription services have moved off shore.

We need to stop funding theoretical education and use our education dollars to fund job skills.

Additionally, we need the media to air more stories about those creating jobs despite the allegedly stagnant economy. Let's inspire growth, rather than create so much fear that the US experiences another 10 years of constriction.


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