Despite naysayers, skills gap exists

Lori A. Weyers, president of Northcentral Technical College in Wausau, says the IT worker shortage is reaching a “crisis” stage.

By MIKE NICHOLS | Aug. 13, 2015

Turns out you can have the mouth of The Donald and the vocabulary of a longshoreman and America will still love you.

Just don’t use the words “skills gap.” Or “worker shortage.”

The skills gap has been called everything from a “zombie idea” to “corporate fiction” to a “myth” and a “fake.” If there were a skills gap, wages would be growing quickly for people with the requisite skills, some argue. You wouldn’t have so many overeducated parking lot attendants. There’s no way, they suggest, there can be as many unfilled jobs as businesses claim. The skills gap can’t possibly exist.

Except it does.  And we have a specific example of where.

Check out Dave Daley’s piece here about the IT worker shortage in central Wisconsin.

Dr. Lori A. Weyers, president of Northcentral Technical College in Wausau, says the shortage is reaching a “crisis” stage. “If you talk to any businessman, they’ll say, ‘I need as many (IT workers) as they can get me,” she says.

Not everyone believes it.

A caller who identified herself only as Carol called a radio program on which Daley was being interviewed the other day to say that her daughter got a degree in the tech area and took a job in the tech field in Wausau because she was told she could make $60,000 a year.

“She did that job for 12 years and never got over $30,000, and she just got so fed up with it she finally quit and went back to school to be a nurse now. She says they promise you everything and give you nothing,” Carol lamented.  Other callers said businesses just have to pay more and market forces ought to take care of the rest.

So where does the truth lie? Are businesses just asking too much and not giving enough? Or do too few people have the right skills?

James Bessen, a lecturer at Boston University School of Law who is also a former tech CEO and author of “Learning By Doing: The Real Connection Between Innovation, Wages and Wealth,” has a theory that rings true – and explains the disconnect between businesses and educators who say there aren’t enough skilled workers and those who insist their statistics reveal plenty of educated workers who just aren’t being given an opportunity.

There is a difference, Bessen told me, between education and skill. They’re not synonymous terms, and many of the skills businesses need today, because the world and successful businesses are evolving so quickly, have to be learned on the job.

“How to learn on the job – it is a problem for employees. It is a problem for employers. It is a problem for society,” he said.

As a result, logic says, there are people who have similar titles or educations who actually have very different skills and jobs and wages. That’s not always reflected in the statistics that economists look at.

Those statistics are often too crude, for instance, to encompass the variety of jobs and workers within, say, the “computer science” field. An average computer science worker, Bessen points out, does not have the skills needed in Silicon Valley today.  So there is a big disparity between those in the upper 10% of wages and those in the middle. And it’s not just a phenomena in computer science.

For instance, the number of bank tellers is growing, and a certain segment with good technical and soft skills are, nowadays, really part of a marketing team and earn much better money than their average counterparts, Bessen said. Truly successful people usually have the right degree, in other words, but that can’t be all. They are also innovative and flexible, have good interpersonal skills and a desire to keep learning.

I asked Bessen why some folks are so adamant that there is not a skills gap, and he didn’t really have an answer. Maybe it’s because the naysayers come from an old-fashioned world where being educated and credentialed at the age of 22 was usually enough to get you into and through a long career.

No longer.

The right degree still matters, but often only a little – something both workers with few valuable skills and businesses that offer too little training have to keep in mind. 

Mike Nichols is president of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.