Editorial cartoon (2/13/13)

It’s taken as a given these days — despite our high unemployment, which should mean there are plenty of people looking for jobs — that many “good” jobs go unfilled because there’s a huge “skills gap.”

Potential employees just don’t have the skills that modern-day manufacturing companies need, the story goes. And it’s a problem not only in Wisconsin, but across the nation.

The problem is blamed on everything from parents pushing their kids to go to college so they won’t be “stuck” in manufacturing jobs the rest of their working lives to the failure of the education system to teach skills that employers need in the first place.

Here in Wisconsin, the skills gap is what’s behind the push to financially penalize colleges and tech schools unless they devise curriculums that mesh with the needs of employers. Gov. Scott Walker and others in his party have threatened to base state aid to the schools on how well they meet those needs.

There’s growing evidence, though, that the so-called job skills gap may be overblown.

Rather, there’s a growing suspicion that many firms are feeding the supposed crisis as a way to get taxpayers to finance the job training of their workforce.

There was a time when employers invested heavily in the training and education of their employees. In manufacturing, much of this was done through union contracts that provided for full-time apprenticeships, jobs in which a new employee would work with a skilled welder, for instance, for a number of years to fully learn the trade.

But as the union movement has shrunk, so have the apprenticeship programs. Now the vocational and technical system is expected to pick up the slack. And even the University of Wisconsin System is expected by some to become more “practical.” The heck with all this high falutin’ arts and literature stuff.

What’s curious is that while many in the business community are strong advocates of a free marketplace, where supply and demand and unfettered competition will make the economy strong, the same free market doesn’t seem to apply to their own employment programs. If there’s a shortage of workers for a particular job skill, the free market would dictate that the wages for the job ought to rise to attract those skills — or, at least, convince young people to learn them.

“If there is a shortage of something, you would expect the price of that something to increase over time,” Steve Hine, director of labor market information for the state of Minnesota, pointed out during a recent job forum in that state. “It doesn’t matter if that’s skilled welders or the market for beer.”

Instead, though, the average hourly wage for a welder grew just $1 between 2005 and 2011. Taking inflation into account, that’s a pay cut.

Professor Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the acclaimed Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, openly calls that skills gap “a myth.” In a speech last month he proclaimed, “I guarantee that politicians will hear a much different story about the so-called skills gap from the unemployed than they’re hearing from companies.”

Cappelli says companies are demanding changes in the education system to make up for their own lack of investment in workforce training and employee development. The result is that there are logjams at cash-strapped community colleges while capable trainable workers remain unemployed.

At a recent Wisconsin forum on the skills gap, Melanie Holmes of the Milwaukee-based Manpower Group placed part of the blame on being “way too picky about who we’re hiring.

“We’re not willing to hire somebody who has most of what’s necessary and then invest in training to get them up and running,” she said. “Wages have not been keeping up, and in some cases they’re going down. We’re not located where the workers are and we don’t have support services like child care.”

There’s no question in this era of rapidly changing technology that some skilled jobs go wanting because of a lack of qualified workers, but there’s also no question that some employers are using the perception of a “gap” to keep their costs low. And that shouldn’t be.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com

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