“These are the kinds of things you guys are supposed to think about and come up with policies,” Ulster County’s Office of Employment and Training (UCOET) Director Lisa Berger told the members of the county Workforce Investment Board toward the end of the WIB meeting on a mid-July late afternoon. After spending more than the first hour of their hour-and-a-half meeting on the mind-numbing minutiae of federal and state regulations, the members and staff spent the last few minutes exchanging experiences about a broader problem: the mismatch in Ulster County between the jobs available in the labor force and the willingness of the unemployed and underemployed to take those jobs.
Berger’s tone was not sarcastic. It was somewhere between challenging and bantering. She must know how difficult progress will be to achieve.
Many Ulster County employers complain that they are having trouble finding qualified applicants for available jobs. Many potential employees, especially young people, complain that there aren’t many jobs available that they want to take. Do employers have standards that are too high? Are employees being too picky? Or both?
A recent paper from the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank defines a skills mismatch in the labor market as “a misallocation between the attributes of individuals seeking jobs and the attributes employers require for their vacant positions.” That careful non-judgmental terminology applies to all labor markets.
The 20-member Ulster WIB, a majority of whose members by federal law are representatives of the private sector, holds six hour-and-a-half meetings a year. Though some members talk with each other between meetings, the likelihood of the WIB devising unaided a coherent strategy for easing the job provider/job seeker mismatch in Ulster County isn’t much higher than zero.
The economic literature suggests that most places outside the largest metropolitan areas are doing little better than Ulster County. Recent track records from training programs in other industrialized countries point to mismatch problems being worldwide.
“By providing job training for eligible and suitable dislocated workers, low-income and otherwise disadvantaged adults and youth, UCOET answers the needs of employers seeking a well-trained and capable workforce,” explains the Ulster County governmental websits.
These words convey a sunny optimism that, alas, is unjustified. The limited population UCOET serves is often on the margins of the labor force. About half the money the agency gets from the federal government, its sole source of funding, goes to pay its own employees.
Maybe the computer age is to blame. Perhaps digital disruption has caused a mismatch between generations that wasn’t there before, creating a greater chasm between traditional employers looking for employees and a generation of employees looking for income: “the gig economy,” as Mary Grenz Jalloh of Ulster BOCES called it at the WIB meeting.
Perhaps the millennials who seek temporary, part-time and independent employment will continue to prefer to find work for themselves and each other through leads on Facebook and gigs on LinkedIn. Later, rather than take a regular job they may choose to “upskill,” or expand their independent marketable capabilities.
In a 2014 paper entitled “Skill gaps, skill shortages and skill mismatches: Evidence for the U.S.” Peter Cappelli of The Wharton School doesn’t mince words. He believes that most mismatches are caused by the increased supply of knowledge workers in a marketplace with more diverse worker needs.
“Objective evidence from government data and other sources does not support any of the claims about skill problems,” Cappelli concludes. “In fact, the evidence appears to be compelling that the U.S. is experiencing exactly the opposite problem, a substantial skills mismatch in the form of individuals with more education than their current jobs require and a surplus of educated and skilled workers who cannot find jobs at all, let alone jobs appropriate for their education and skill level.” Cappelli thinks that many, perhaps most, employer problems with hiring appear to be self-inflicted, such as inadequate pay and training. That’s a harsh judgment.
Cappelli builds his case. Declines in employee tenure mean more turnover and more hiring. The emphasis on experience rather than academic skills is tough on young candidates. Training is often inadequate. Apprenticeship systems are declining. Employers seek specific rather than general skills.
The attributes of accountability and motivation are associated, Cappelli notes, with growing up. “How schools can accelerate that process and make 18-year-olds act like 28-year-olds,” he writes dryly, “is not clear.” He expresses doubts that employers should transfer their training responsibilities to educational organizations, an increasingly common practice.