Jobs report challenges pervasive 'skills gap'

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A recent job description for a lab technician described the requirements: a bachelor's degree in chemistry or biology, a year of work experience in light manufacturing, the knowledge and ability to mix chemicals, the ability to operate a fork lift, lift heavy boxes and work with hazardous materials.

What did it pay? $15 to $17 an hour.

This is one example in a report released Monday by the Boston Consulting Group of what is being called the skills gap: Employers have a laundry list of skills needed for a job and can't find qualified workers. But, the report noted, that could change if employers were willing to train workers and pay better wages.

The talk of the skills gap of American workers is overblown, according to Harold L. Sirkin, a Chicago-based co-author of the report.

Mr. Sirkin said for the vast majority of manufacturing workers training can be done in less than three months. He said less than 10 percent of the manufacturing workforce -- such as machinists, tool and die makers and welders -- are highly skilled and take longer to train, but companies do not want to invest in training. Instead, they want workers are who ready to go.

An example the report used is of two companies that are looking for a pipe welder. One is a large company that works with community colleges and trains in-house so it can "build" its own welder to fit its needs. The other company is small and does not devote resources to training, so it has to pay more for trained workers.

He said the consulting group became interested in the issue because it kept hearing talk of a skills gap, but when it looked at the issue, "we didn't see any of the signs of a real skills gap, like all of a sudden wages in manufacturing were going up."

There are some pockets where the group found a skills gap: Of the 50 largest metropolitan areas, Miami, Wichita, Baton Rouge, San Antonio and Charlotte had significant or severe skills gaps. That is about to decrease by one, because Boeing, the largest employer in Wichita, announced it will close its plant there.

However, while there may not be a skills gap now, Mr. Sirkin noted the average age of highly skilled manufacturing workers is 56 years old, so there will be a time when those workers are out of the workforce and need to be replaced.

There is also a gap, he said, between what some of the community colleges are teaching and the technologies that now exist.

The issue could become exacerbated as jobs in manufacturing that were off-shored to China back when that country was paying 58 cents an hour started to come back about two years ago.

Stefani Pashman, CEO of the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board, Downtown, said the off-shoring issue puts pressure on companies that face global competition to pay lower wages.

At the same time, she said, employers have raised the bar in terms of whom they are looking to hire, such as demanding higher reading and mathematics levels while wanting employees to walk onto the floor and work rather than spend any time on training.

"I hope this report will be somewhat of a call to action to companies to come to the table and talk about training," she said.

businessnews - employment

Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.


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