Why There Are Shortages of Skilled Labor in a Recession

While huge numbers of people have lost jobs in this recession, employers are having a hard time finding qualified people for certain types of skilled labor. And while this may be a bit of a stretch, I believe one factor contributing to the situation is the failure of many companies to understand lean principles.

A recent article in The New York Times describes the problem.

Unnoticed in the government’s standard employment data, employers are begging for qualified applicants for certain occupations, even in hard times. Most of the jobs involve skills that take years to attain.

Welder is one, employers report. Critical care nurse is another. Electrical lineman is yet another, particularly those skilled in stringing high-voltage wires across the landscape. Special education teachers are in demand. So are geotechnical engineers, trained in geology as well as engineering, a combination sought for oil field work. Respiratory therapists, who help the ill breathe, are not easily found, at least not by the Permanente Medical Group, which employs more than 30,000 health professionals. And with infrastructure spending now on the rise, civil engineers are in demand to supervise the work.

Why are these types of professionals in short supply?

For these hard-to-fill jobs, there seems to be a common denominator. Employers are looking for people who have acquired an exacting skill, first through education — often just high school vocational training — and then by honing it on the job. That trajectory, requiring years, is no longer so easy in America, said Richard Sennett, a New York University sociologist.

The pressure to earn a bachelor’s degree draws young people away from occupational training, particularly occupations that do not require college, Mr. Sennett said, and he cited two other factors. Outsourcing interrupts employment before a skill is fully developed, and layoffs undermine dedication to a single occupation. “People are told they can’t get back to work unless they retrain for a new skill,” he said.

Two of those factors – outsourcing and layoffs – are the techniques employed by many companies when times get tough.

But not lean companies. Lean employers understand that outsourcing can create problems of logistics and quality, and that its cost benefits can often be matched by improving processes and keeping work in-house. And lean employers view employees as assets, providing them with additional training and responsibility for improvement when business is slow (rather than laying them off) so the company will be better able to compete when conditions improve.

Maybe if more companies understood and embraced a lean strategy, these shortages of workers wouldn’t be as severe.

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