“If you hear an employer complain they can’t find skilled workers, always ask, at what wage?” – Heidi Shierholz, former chief economist at the Labor Department
— Armine Yalnizyan (@ArmineYalnizyan) June 21, 2017
So, is the ‘skills gap’ a real thing? I suspect it’s a way to exert discipline over labour and to privatize our individual struggles against precarity. Love to hear your thoughts.- Benjamin
Some employers do complain that they’re finding it hard to find workers with the skills they need. But show us the money: If employers are really crying out for certain skills, they should be willing to offer higher wages to attract workers with those skills.
Instead of focusing on the way disastrously wrongheaded fiscal policy and inadequate action by the Federal Reserve have crippled the economy and demanding action, important people piously wring their hands about the failings of American workers.
Moreover, by blaming workers for their own plight, the skills myth shifts attention away from the spectacle of soaring profits and bonuses even as employment and wages stagnate. Of course, that may be another reason corporate executives like the myth so much.
The survey results do show some hiring challenges, but not for the reasons posited by the conventional skill-gap narrative. In fact, the data reveal that high-tech and cutting-edge establishments do not have greater hiring difficulties than other establishments.
Proponents of the skill-gap theory sometimes assert that the problem, if not a lack of STEM skills, is actually the result of a poor attitude or inadequate soft skills among younger workers. But while demand for a few soft skills—like the ability to initiate new tasks without guidance from management—is occasionally predictive of hiring problems, most soft-skill demands, including requirements for cooperation and teamwork, are not.
This points up the danger in the way we currently discuss the “skills gap.” Thinking about the nation’s economic and workforce challenges this way encourages us to believe that the root of all labor-market problems lies in the low quality of labor supply—that is, in workers’ lack of skills. However, pushing students and new workers to unilaterally make expensive investments in generic skill categories (or, worse, to just get “more education”) is likely to result in inefficient investments, mistaken choices, and a large number of dead-end paths.
The past few decades have seen a rise in inequality and a broad shift in power from labour towards capital. …
Namely, the skills gap narrative is haunted by labour market perceptions that don’t align with reality: workers not keeping up with technological advances; universities pumping out the wrong graduates; or workers entering the workforce without enough universal “soft skills”. In fact, a comprehensive review of studies from the United States published in 2014 showed the exact opposite problem: many workers are overqualified for their jobs!
Michael Madowitz, an economist at the Center for American Progress, says he is “unusually unsympathetic to the evergreen skills gap critique.”
“First the Econ 101 ‘pay more for more if you want more’ cuts against this well in a period of little wage growth,” Madowitz said. “Second, there’s fascinating/depressing empirical research showing a ‘skills gap’ occurs because employers add and remove qualifications for the same job postings depending on the labor market, ensuring there is always a skills gap.”
But the heart of the real story about employer difficulties in hiring can be seen in the Manpower data showing that only 15% of employers who say they see a skill shortage say that the issue is a lack of candidate knowledge, which is what we’d normally think of as skill. Instead, by far the most important shortfall they see in candidates is a lack of experience doing similar jobs. Employers are not looking to hire entry-level applicants right out of school.
Another way to describe the above situation is that employers don’t want to provide any training for new hires — or even any time for candidates to get up to speed. A 2011 Accenture survey found that only 21% of U.S. employees had received any employer-provided formal training in the past five years. Does it make sense to keep vacancies unfilled for months to avoid having to give new hires with less-than-perfect skills time to get up to speed?
“It’s hard not to break out laughing,” one economist noted recently. “If there’s a skills shortage, there has to be rises in wages [for skilled workers]. It’s basic economics.”
Yet wages in manufacturing—even for skilled workers—are stagnant at best.
When pressed, one manufacturing CEO acknowledged that for him, the “skills gap” meant an inability to find enough highly qualified applicants, with no “union-type experience,” willing to start at $10 an hour.
“That’s not a skills mismatch or even a labor shortage problem in any meaningful sense,” Marc Levine, professor of history and economic development at the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee, makes clear. “That’s an effort to secure cheap and docile labor.”
In a fact check of a UK claim, a news organization first notes dodgy methodology:
The findings are based on a survey of 400 businesses conducted by the Open University. But this was not actually an academic study, written or peer-reviewed by qualified academics. The Open University outsourced its study to a private market research company based in York, called Pickersgill Consultancy & Planning Ltd.
then pries apart the central issue:
…we need to distinguish between skills and recruitment issues, as they are often conflated. In theory, there could be an abundance of people with the necessary skills – but the jobs these businesses are offering are simply not good enough to attract them. … Dr Thijs van Rens, associate professor in the Department of Economics at Warwick University, told FactCheck the situation is more complicated than many commentators like to make out.
“There is genuine confusion about what a ‘skills gap’ means,” he said. “There are some skills or occupations where there is a lot more demand than supply, and others where there is a lot more supply than demand. So, in that sense, the skills gap is not a myth. It’s a real thing.
“But calling it a skills gap would suggest that these skills are not at all available, and that is – as far as we know – not the case. There are skills shortages, but then the next question is why do they exist and why do they persist? And the answer tends to be because of wages.”
Why does the skills gap explanation nonetheless retain central influence in the national political discourse? Bybee explains the narrative’s appeal to business, media, and political elites quite well. Thanks to the US labor market’s abject failure to provide a reliable and sufficient supply of good jobs, Bybee notes, recent public opinion polls show a widespread loss of faith on the part of ordinary Americans in the ability of the “free enterprise system” and the “free market” to meet their economic needs. “The skills gap version of reality shifts the spotlight from the deficiencies of US capitalism in generating jobs with family-sustaining wages and benefits, to the alleged deficiencies of the workers themselves. . . . Not only does the skills gap story displace media coverage of the daunting problems faced by working Americans, it also activates a self-blaming reflex among workers conditioned their entire lives to ascribe structural failures to their personal shortcomings.” The skills gap myth diverts responsibility from the 1% and its profits system to the system’s working-class subjects. It is another version of the timeworn upper-class game of blaming one’s own victims.
header image by Annie Spratt