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No Easy Fixes for Underemployment, Experts Say
Meeting country’s labor market needs is key to solving problem

By Theresa Minton-Eversole  5/23/2013
There are no easy fixes for U.S. underemployment. But one thing’s certain: It will take a concerted effort on many fronts to address the problem, according to experts who participated in a policy briefing hosted by National Journal Live on May 21, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

“Nobody likes to be underemployed. It’s not good for workers, their families or the economy,” said Department of Labor (DOL) Assistant Secretary of Employment and Training Administration Jane Oates, who keynoted the event, “The Underemployed Generation: Matching Skills to Jobs.”

Oates said the Labor Department has tools to help various worker groups—for example, those ages 21 to 35 who are particularly representative of the underemployed—explore the careers that are in demand now. But it will take more educational and private-sector efforts that directly produce workers for available U.S. jobs to truly tackle the problems, she said. Also, individuals need to be more personally accountable for acquiring the skills they need to enter professions that will provide the most employment options in the future.

“Labor market data is not sexy, but people need to learn what jobs are in demand in this country,” Oates said, adding that appropriate educational opportunities need to be provided (or sought out) to ensure this demand is met.

Divergent Paths: Job Expectations, Hard Realities

This doesn’t appear to be happening right now. Research conducted for the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) reveals a divergence of opinion between young workers and employers regarding each group’s expectations about skills availability and competence.

A survey of more than 1,200 young Americans that explored how they view education and skills showed that 51 percent have postsecondary education “buyer’s remorse” about their educational path and a lack of enthusiasm for their current job. More than half said they are not working in their preferred type of job, but 75 percent said they have the knowledge and skills they need to find a new position.

By contrast, 54 percent of more than 1,000 hiring decision-makers s polled in an ACICS survey conducted in December 2011 said it’s difficult to find applicants who have the necessary knowledge and skills to work for their organization. 

“The underemployed generation underestimates the hard skills and professional capabilities employers are seeking in applicants,” summarized the worker survey report, released February 2013.

Oates said that businesses need to write better job descriptions to help ensure better job-fit matches and that they need to look for applicants who are trainable.

“If employers have jobs open 60, 90 days [in this economy], something’s wrong,” she said. “Is this because of a skills gap, or is it because employers aren’t sure what they need? Job descriptions typically define technical skills well, but they don’t clearly define soft-skills requirements,” such as the ability to work in teams or the amount and types of writing or speaking that are required for the position.

Education Reform: ‘Way Too Much of a Good Thing’

Several experts who participated in a question-and-answer session during the briefing said the country’s educational system is failing to provide students with opportunities that show the relevance of their education to the workplace.

“Education reform has been way too much of a good thing,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, Ph.D., research director at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, referring to the country’s shift from acquiring job-related skills to attaining academic degrees. Although research still shows that workers who are better educated earn more money, Carnevale said, “what students take [in college] determines whether they’ll work and what [standard of living they’ll have].”

“There’s a real need to expand the definition of educational success,” agreed Martha Ross, a fellow at The Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “Bachelor’s degrees have been given a sort of ‘most favored nation’ status,” she said, adding that these degrees “are being used now as sorting material during recruiting. Does an administrative assistant really need a bachelor’s degree, or would an associate degree be just as appropriate?”

“Students [also] need to learn the likely outcomes of jobs for the degrees they want,” said Andrew Reamer, Ph.D., a research professor at George Washington University’s Institute for Public Policy. “The federal government can help them learn this by showing how degreed and nondegreed programs can lead them to jobs.”

All the panelists agreed there are stubbornly entrenched misperceptions that thwart interest in many high-demand professions, such as those in the science, technical, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, as well as hard-to-fill careers traditionally entered through career and technical education (CTE) centers and career colleges.

“The perception is that math is only for engineer and STEM jobs,” said Oates. Schools should put a greater emphasis on applied math and qualitative reasoning skills, which are needed for many other jobs, as well, she noted. And they should develop internships that put students in the workplace.

“Education has walked away from apprenticeships and co-ops,” which provide students with much-needed field experience that not only hones their skills but also helps them learn “how to participate in the workplace yet not dominate, how to speak up and when to shut up.”

The emphasis on work experience is not lost in CTE, stressed Shaun McAlmont, CEO of the publicly traded education company Lincoln Education Services, based in New Jersey. But unpaid or low-paying internships aren’t always an option for less affluent students.

“The traditional education system isn’t set up for someone who’s had roadblocks in their lives,” said McAlmont, whose company recently helped open a large technical school in Denver. Consequently, these students, who often can’t afford to go to college, opt for career and technical education programs. Ironically, they often get hired more quickly than new college graduates because of the direct ties that many career-focused programs have to businesses and industries that give the students work experience as they learn.

But these programs aren’t as widespread as they could be—in part because of the money it takes to fund them. “Book-based education costs a lot less than skills-based training that requires expensive equipment and salaries for highly skilled instructors,” Carnevale observed.

All the panelists agreed that more job-skills training needs to be added to academic studies. “It’d be great to incorporate industry certifications, for example, into higher-education degreed programs,” said Ross.

Such an overhaul is unlikely, though, said Carnevale, noting that the cost of putting the U.S. education system back on top globally has been estimated at between $150 billion and $200 billion.

But without some form of change, underemployment will remain a persistent problem. “We’ve got to quit putting kids in degreed programs for jobs we don’t have to give,” Oates said.

Theresa Minton-Eversole is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Related Articles:

Closing the Latino Education Gap, HR Magazine, May 2013 

Skills Gaps Affecting Some Jobs, Industries More than Others, SHRM Online Staffing Management, April 2013

Job-Skills Boot Camp: An Award-Winning Idea, SHRM Online, News About SHRM, April 2013

 Atlanta Chapter Mobilizes to Aid Youth Programs, SHRM Online, April 2013

 Closing the Manufacturing Skills Gap, SHRM Foundation Executive Briefing, March 2013.

 California Manufacturers Try to Bridge Skills Gap, SHRM Online Legal Issues, state and Local Resources, March 2013

 The Higher Education Gap, HR Magazine, December 2012

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