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Much has been said about the contribution of the “skills mismatch” to the United States’ elevated unemployment rate. Even President Barack Obama weighed in during his State of the Union address, calling it “inexcusable” that there are job openings in many industries that can’t be filled while millions of Americans are looking for work.
Although most economists argue that joblessness is largely a function of lowered demand at the moment, simple math says there’s also something else going on: There are 13 million people out of work, yet 3.2 million jobs are available. Recruiters and HR professionals continue to profess difficulty finding candidates with the proper qualifications for their job openings.
At the same time, workers are gaining more faith in their prospects for finding new employment—2 million people quit their jobs in November 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), up from the most recent low of 1.5 million in January 2010.
However, in the absence of a sudden boost in demand for labor, training and education are the most logical solutions to aligning unemployed workers’ skills with the needs of companies looking to hire. Of course, it’s often not easy to determine who pays for this training and how it is administered, since many organizations’ resources have been stretched thin during a period of weak economic growth.
But there’s a growing body of evidence that shows workers who are challenged or given training/education opportunities are more productive. People who fit the description of “thriving” in their jobs demonstrated 16 percent better job performance and 125 percent less burnout than their peers, according to university research findings published in the January-February 2012 issue of theHarvard Business Review. “Thriving” was determined to include two components—vitality and learning—and the survey included 1,200 white- and blue-collar workers from a variety of industries.
“Employees who experience vitality spark energy in themselves and others,” says Gretchen Spreitzer, co-author of the study and a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “Companies generate vitality by giving people the sense that what they can do on a daily basis makes a difference. Learning is the growth that comes from gaining new knowledge and skills. People who are developing their abilities are likely to believe in their potential for further growth.”
That last sentence could easily apply to those with jobs or those seeking employment. Let’s say Employer A has several openings at the moment but can’t find candidates with the right skills. The company, however, has several workers in-house who could handle the jobs with a little training. Why not engage those employees to take the higher-skilled jobs, and in the process create openings for lower-skilled jobs that may be filled by the ranks of the unemployed?
It appears that some companies are grasping this. Organizations in the United States spent $171.5 billion on employee learning in 2010, up from $125.8 billion in 2009, according to the American Society for Training & Development.
Workers also have made it clear that they want chances to grow on the job. Sixty-two percent of responding employees cited “opportunities to use skills and abilities” as a very important factor in determining job satisfaction, according to the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2011 Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement research report. That came second to job security (63 percent) and was the highest percentage for the “skills and abilities” category since 2004.
So what’s next? The truth is, we’re still digging out of an extremely large hole for unemployment and cannot wait for a full-scale economic rebound to bring most of those 13 million individuals back to work. Perhaps training and education need to lead the way.
Joseph Coombsis SHRM’s workplace trends and forecasting specialist.
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