A Shortage of Skilled Workers? Really?

This article from today’s Washington Post is puzzling. It seems straightforward enough but it’s saying things that don’t always make sense.

Skilled Labor in High Demand
Employers Lament Declining Ranks of Capable Workers

By Nell Henderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 25, 2004; Page E01

David L. Hurley is eager to hire new workers at his Florida surveying company and isn’t asking for much: Only a dozen or so people with enough basic math to learn the software he uses to make blueprints, and enough basic sense to show up on time.

But after weeks of want ads and recruiting, he has drawn a conclusion: The workers aren’t out there. While there are plenty of people who “can fog a mirror” and might be able to do grunt work on a survey crew for $8.50 an hour, Hurley said the economy has run short of people with the types of basic skills he could mold into a $20-per-hour survey crew chief.

“I would add 15 people tomorrow if I could find them,” said Hurley, president of Landmark Engineering & Surveying Corp. of Tampa. “We need people with some knowledge of trigonometry and geometry. It’s really just arithmetic. We’re turning down work because we don’t have the people.”

What??!! Maybe it’s a regional thing and Tampa is understocked, but there’s something odd going on here.

I’ve been hearing this ‘We just can’t find qualified people to hire’ line for 40 years. It was never true in the past and I seriously doubt it’s true now. When employers say shit like that, it usually turns out that there are hidden qualifiers–adjectives they don’t say out loud that ought to be in front of the word ‘people’, like: white, male, or young. Is something like that going on here?

To explain why wage and job growth has remained weak during a nearly three-year period of economic expansion, economists point to a complicated set of dynamics.

Developing countries like India have become increasingly competitive in global markets, offering well-trained workers at comparatively cut-rate prices. American workers have become steadily more productive — a two-edged sword that makes each employee more valuable but which has largely boosted company profits instead of wages and hiring. The decline of organized labor and the stagnation of the federal minimum wage have helped suppress what workers are paid, say analysts like Harry Holzer, a Georgetown University professor and former chief Labor Department economist during the Clinton administration.

I added the emphasis to make this point: What the fuck do they expect? They’ve been boosting their profits on our backs: they admit we’re more valuable, yet what they’re willing to pay for all that extra value has been stagnant for 20 years. On top of that, they’ve been wedded to a hire/fire strategy in which there’s no security at all: when they need people, they hire them–at the lowest possible wage, never mind their skill or how high their productivity is–and in a few months, if business slips, they lay them off again. What incentive is there to get expensive training when a) they won’t pay you for what you know; b) they’ll lay you off as soon as they figure out how to get somebody else to do your job as well as their own (‘productivity’); c) they’ll outsource your whole industry first chance they get; d) they’ll fire you if business slips even a little; and e) there’s no guarantee you won’t be replaced by a computer program 6 months after you finally get a job? Do they think we don’t know this shit? Do they think we don’t understand that this ‘shortage’ is only temporary and that when it’s over we’ll find ourselves, like machinests and tool-and-die makers, with skills nobody wants any more?

These ‘shortages’ come-and-go like fads, and every couple of years employers bitch at us that we were trained for all the wrong things. A few years ago machinists were told to re-train for the lucrative new field of computer technology, so they did. Then–Whoops! Dot-com bubble burst and anyway Indian workers are cheaper. You’re fired. There was a shortage last year; there’s a glut this year. What’s the matter with you? Why didn’t you see this coming and get trained for something I can’t outsource until next year?

So if this sonuvabitch is actually losing business, wouldn’t it be worth his while to train some of those untrained people? Pay for them to take a night-course on geometry and trig? It’s not like it’s expensive. But no, he’s not doing that and it isn’t hard to figure out why: by the time they got trained, his business may have changed and he won’t need them any more so he’d just be throwing money away.

But an important and potentially worrisome piece of the puzzle can be seen through the experience of employers like Hurley, who contend that low-cost labor in India, China and elsewhere is far from the only thing inhibiting job growth in the United States.

Whether it is in expanding areas like health care or in the beleaguered manufacturing sector, employers say that once they are ready to add to their payrolls, it is often so difficult to find capable workers that positions are left unfilled. Those who have the required skills typically already have jobs, said representatives in a number of industries, while those who are available often aren’t qualified. Trade groups and business owners say employers are begging for engineers, machinists, information technology workers, radiology technicians, nurses, health care finance administrators, and even, in an age of computer diagnostics, auto mechanics.

Engineers? Machinists? IT workers? What are they talking about? Those are all areas that have been hit hard by automation and outsourcing. Millions were laid off from those fields in the last 10 years, especially the last 5, and they can’t find any? That doesn’t make any sense. I have to ask: What are the hidden qualifiers here? What do they really mean? That they can’t find people who are white enough, male, or young enough? Or are there new qualifiers? Do they mean they can’t find people who graduated from universities instead of community colleges?

Faced with the task of hiring a specialty aluminum welder in Michigan, where troubles in the auto industry have left thousands of blue-collar factory employees out of work, Diane Dearing came up empty.

“It’s hard to find skilled people,” said Dearing, president of Display Structures Inc., of Troy, Mich., which makes metal parts for trade-show displays.

This woman can’t find an aluminum welder in Michigan? Where thousands of highly skilled welders were thrown out of work when the auto plants got moved to Indonesia? That’s insane, I don’t believe that.

Economists and sociologists have long recognized the dual nature of the American economy — an $11 trillion behemoth that leads the world in technology, research and innovation, yet with a population that lags nearly a dozen other developed countries in basic literacy and science. American adults rank 12th in literacy among those of 20 high-income, industrialized countries, according to a 2002 study by the private Educational Testing Service; American 12th-graders ranked below the average of their international counterparts in math and science, according to the 1999 Third International Math and Science Study, a project of the Lynch School of Education at Boston College.

OK, now some perspective is starting to kick in: they want people fresh out of school who will work cheap, not older workers who’ve been downsized and may bring ‘attitude’ with them–a knowledge of what the job is really worth and maybe a willingness to buck the employer when they see corners being cut or scams being played out on them.

If I sound cynical, it’s only because I’ve been here before. They’ll do what they’ve always done–use us as long as they need us and then chuck us to the wolves and go after a new batch the next time.

I’m not saying there aren’t legitimate issues of under-training, poor schooling, and missed opportunities here. But the responsibility isn’t entirely ours. There was a hard-won social contract–an agreement–between management and labor for 50 years that management has abrogated consistently since 1980. They stole our pensions, cut our pay, moved our jobs offshore even when we were making huge profits for them, replaced us with machines even when the machines cost more than we did and couldn’t do the job as well, voted for people who promised to cut the safety net out from under us, voted for people who destroyed the educational system in the name of ‘tax relief’, and in general treated us like cannon-fodder that could be used and thrown away, and now they’re bitching because at the moment they need us and we don’t know what they need us to know?

Bullshit.

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