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Jobs + Skills11.18.14

Mind The Gap: Lack Of Middle Skills Workers Hurts Businesses

Middle skills (the ones you learn after high school but don’t require a Bachelor’s degree) are calling, but there aren’t enough workers to fill them. Why?

The result of a new employment survey is enough to strike fear in the hearts of every hiring manager and recruitment professional across the country.

There’s a growing threat to performance and productivity and it’s not due to a deluge of email or a dearth of quiet office space. It’s actually caused by a demand for “middle skills” jobs that are hard to fill.

It might be hard to believe as the unemployment rate keeps dropping, yet research by Accenture, Burning Glass, and Harvard Business School revealed that though nearly three-quarters of U.S. companies (73 percent) expect the number of middle-skills jobs to grow at their firms over the next few years, more than half (56 percent) of those surveyed are having a hard time finding qualified people to fill the positions. Almost seven out of ten people surveyed say this shortage is affecting their performance.

For the uninitiated, middle skills are those acquired after high school but don’t require completing a four-year degree program. Think: two-year Associate’s degree or technical school certification. These learned skills are generally used in support positions for professionals and managers that hold college degrees or higher.

The hardest hit industries include finance and insurance, information and telecom, healthcare, retail, and manufacturing. Among the positions that are hardest to fill are engineering techs, sales representatives, nursing assistants, network administrators, and computer support specialists, according to Accenture’s survey of more than 800 human resource executives.

Harvard Business School senior lecturer and lead author of the report Joe Fuller takes a hard line approach to the potential crisis. “For too long we have accepted the cliché that America’s jobs machine is broken,” he said in a statement. “Someone has to take the lead in restarting it, and business leaders are in the best position to take decisive steps to end the misalignment in our economy—millions of job postings alongside millions of unemployed. This is the single most important issue to strengthen U.S. competitiveness—and bring back the American dream for our workers.”

The survey puts the onus on students:

Too few have highly marketable skills; too many have pursued courses of study for which there is little demand. Ballooning student debt threatens the future of graduates and looms over the federal budget

and employers alike:

Employers had little incentive to develop or share projections of their needs with educators, to incur the costs of defining qualifications on an industry-wide basis, or to invest in apprenticeships and cooperative education programs. Students and other aspiring workers had virtually no access to relevant information on which courses of study to pursue, how to compare between entry-level jobs for their long-term career paths and wages, or which skills local businesses were seeking.

So why not offer a proactive approach from the hiring side of the equation? After all, if 38% of companies say they typically need to hire people with more education than the position requires to access the talent they need and less than a quarter (22%) say they always consider bringing someone on who requires additional training when they’re having trouble filling a role.

The first problem to address according to David Smith, senior managing director, Accenture Strategy, Talent & Organization is that there’s a disconnect between the skills employers need and the skills and experience many prospective employees have. “As a first step, companies must improve forecasting and planning to better understand which positions and skills they need most,” Smith tells MidMarket Pulse. “They can do this by applying the best practices of supply chain management to the management of the talent supply chain of middle skills workers, and by developing a more disciplined process by which the supply and demand of people resources are sourced, developed, deployed and retained,” he explains.

Another way to tackle this is through training. “Our research found that even though 80 percent of companies believe internships or apprenticeships for middle-skills jobs are effective ways to build skills, only about half as many (41 percent) currently offer any such program,” Smith points out. “The persistent talent gap we’re experiencing is driving more demand for apprenticeships and is an important step in managing a much smoother talent supply chain,” he says.

Unfortunately, Smith says, despite the desire to offer apprenticeships, many companies do not have the infrastructure and resources in place currently to effectively support and manage them appropriately, so that both apprentices and employers get value from them. He didn’t offer any specific suggestions for strategies on how to implement such programs, only tells us, “It will take some time to get this infrastructure in place,” and suggested that companies should look to partnering with community colleges and technical schools to “help shape apprenticeship programs so that the students are learning exactly what skills they seek in job candidates.” Here at MidMarket Pulse we’ve discussed the benefits of partnering with schools.

The survey is just more evidence that investing in middle skills positions creates value for U.S. businesses and therefore boosts the country’s competitiveness on a global scale, not to mention increases the lifetime career value for many of these workers.

What does your company do to attract and retain more middle skill staffers?

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