Joblessness not due to skills gap, experts say

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Community College of Allegheny County's North Fayette campus has classrooms filled with the gear and gadgets that are commonly seen in advanced manufacturing.

It's no wonder that President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden visited the campus Wednesday to push a job training initiative.

The school has a laboratory equipped for the study of advanced manufacturing, particularly advanced mechatronics/integrated systems technology, which is understanding how the systems of a manufacturing plant come together in terms of hydraulics, electrical systems and mechanical systems.

And while economists think it is always appropriate to have job training available, they are quick to add that job training will not solve the systemic problems that are causing high unemployment rates in either the region or the country.

The problem lies not in the lack of skilled workers, but in the lack of jobs, some experts say.

Economists say the best way to determine if there is a lack of skilled workers for a job is to see if employers are raising wages for that job.

The latest data from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry show that in January, the starting wage for openings in manufacturing jobs was lower in the Pittsburgh metropolitan statistical area than it was in January 2009, even though there were slightly fewer job openings in 2009.

The starting wage in manufacturing in the seven-county Pittsburgh region fell from $19,855 in the beginning of 2009, half a year before the end of the Great Recession, to $18,828 this January, or $3,000 less than what the wages would have been if they kept pace with inflation 41/2 years into the recovery.

"Every time you hear someone say 'I can't find the workers I need,' add the phrase 'at the wage I want to pay'," said Heidi Shierholz, an economist for the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., economic research organization.

When Ms. Shierholz compared the report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics on the number of job openings by industry with data from the U.S. Census on the number of people who are unemployed by industry, she found there are more unemployed people than jobs in every industry.

In manufacturing of durable goods, for instance, there were 576,600 unemployed workers for 162,600 job openings nationally. In construction, there were 895,800 unemployed workers, but just 116,800 job openings.

The Pittsburgh region was one of the first to recover the number of jobs it had before the economic collapse, but that still has not kept pace with the growing labor pool.

Mark Price, a labor economist for the Keystone Research Center in Harrisburg, said the state needs another 53,000 jobs to make up for the number of jobs still missing since the recession and then 204,000 more jobs to keep up with Pennsylvania's growing population.

"We've recovered much of what we lost since 2007, but we haven't made up for the new people who have entered the labor market," he said.


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

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