HR, Education and Employment: A Q&A with Anthony P. Carnevale

HR needs to apply a whole new set of standards to hire today’s workforce.

By Nov 17, 2015
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Anthony P. Carnevale has had his finger on the pulse of employment, training and education issues in America for decades. After a career spent advising unions, institutions of higher learning and the highest levels of government, Carnevale is now working as a Georgetown University research professor and head of the university’s Center on Education and the Workforce. Its mission is to study the link between education, career qualifications and workforce demands.

While the need for highly skilled workers is growing fast, it’s not clear where these individuals will come from, he notes. But one thing he does know is that people with few skills—as well as the organizations that can’t find the requisite talent—will be the losers in this economy. That’s why it’s critical for companies and schools to work together today to develop tomorrow’s workforce.

Previously, Carnevale worked for one of the largest U.S. unions, a business-sponsored research group and an educational testing company. And three U.S. presidents—Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George Bush—have tapped the noted economist for his expertise in labor market trends.

How is the economic recovery affecting HR?

Six million net new jobs have been created since 2010, when the recovery began. More than 40 percent of the people filling those positions are college grads. They’re not always alumni of four-year colleges; more and more, they have two-year degrees and specialized certificates from companies such as Cisco and Microsoft. As the economy grows stronger, hiring heats up and HR’s selection function becomes more important.

But isn’t the ability to hire more workers a good thing for HR?

It’s complex. Competition for workers is increasing. More and more, HR’s challenge is to hire a skilled workforce. There have been shortages of qualified employees before, especially in tech functions, and this time it could become more severe. Getting people with experience will be more difficult. Many companies are hiring seasoned workers from other industries who can be trained on the job. If you can’t hire or buy the talent you need, you have to make it yourself.

How can HR find the best talent?

In a world where skill is more important than ever, a whole new set of standards is required for new hires. Nowadays, worker competency has several dimensions, including knowledge, skills, abilities and more. Other aspects are more about the individuals—their interests and values regarding work, which differ by industry. Research shows that people perform best in jobs that align with their interests and work values. Personality matters, as does conscientiousness and flexibility. HR must approach hiring with these variables in mind. The HR function is more complicated than it used to be, but the world is much more complicated as well.

Does the education system prepare students for the workforce?

To an extent, but the job itself is the best teacher. You may go to college for four or five years, but you’re going to have to learn on the job for another 50. The evidence does show a correlation between education and labor market value—in other words, the more schooling you have, the higher your worth in the work world. We know low skills are a disaster for workers in a modern economy, so it’s essential for people to have some formal training after high school in order to compete for jobs.

Schools have always paid attention to the workforce and the skills it needs. And they have adapted to the current climate. As tuition costs rise, students and parents are demanding that degrees translate into jobs.

How can students know whether their degrees will pay off?

The Obama administration recently released its college scorecard. The federal government dropped $750 million on states to build data systems that show the costs of colleges and universities alongside the average salaries of their graduates. I’m a proponent. With escalating costs, students have a right to know the value of their degrees before they invest their time and money in obtaining them.

What’s the state of pay today?

For a while now, companies have been paying college-wage premiums—higher compensation to workers with postsecondary education beyond high school—but compensation is flat at the moment after rising since the mid-1980s. Still, employers are willing to pay more for workers with certain skills.

Engineers earn the most, as do people in other STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Business majors come in second, and those trained in health care are number three. A degree in education won’t get you much money, but at least it guarantees a job. The liberal arts are popular with students. But when it comes to earnings, in a broad sense, wages are low for the humanities and liberal arts degrees because they have weak connections with the labor market.

What job trends can we expect in 2016?

In the coming years, we expect more of the same. The fastest-growing occupations and industries are those that require the most education and training.

Health care continues to lead the way in job creation. Though hours are long, clinical professionals are paid reasonably well and can move up. This field was one of the few sectors that continued to grow even in the heart of the recession. One exception is the health care support occupations, such as nurses’ aides, which pay poorly and offer little opportunity for growth.

The technical services sector—including positions in IT, finance and health care technology—is also steadily adding jobs, with no indications of slowing down.

Finally, advanced manufacturing will continue to add workers—especially those needing sub-baccalaureate middle skills to fill technician-level jobs on the factory floor. Manufacturing still has a PR problem and, unfortunately, many good-paying jobs go unfilled because we simply aren’t training enough workers quickly enough to fill these skilled positions.

Donna M. Owens is a freelance writer in Baltimore.

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