Paradox: unemployment high, yet skills gap growing

Corporate layoffs are at their lowest recorded levels, and employment listings are surging. Yet, unemployment and underemployment are still through the roof. Why the disconnect?

We still suffer from an alarmingly high unemployment rate. The official figure, calculated by the Department of Labor, stands at 9.6%, and the estimate including discouraged and underemployed workers is about 17.1%.

David Altig, Atlanta Fed: computerization consolidates three jobs into one

However, corporate job listings are going strong, and corporate layoffs are at their lowest levels in a decade. In addition, average salary rates are steady, if not growing. just said that the U.S. Monster Employment Index recorded its eighth consecutive month of positive year-over-year growth during September with a growth rate of 16 percent. The Monster Employment Index now stands at 136. By comparison, it hit a peak of 189 in May 2007 -- so it's still down 28 percent off its peak, but up from in 114 in July 2009.

At the same time, in contrast to just a year ago, announcements of corporate downsizing remains at record low levels. Challenger, Gray & Christmas, the outplacement firm that has been tracking downsizings since the early 1990s, observed earlier this month that "the pace of downsizing remained virtually unchanged in September as employers announced plans to cut 37,151 jobs during the month; a seven percent increase from the 34,768 job cuts reported in August. The September figure is the second lowest of the year and comes on the heels of the lowest monthly job-cut total since June 2000 (17,241)."

So why is unemployment so stubbornly high?  Why the disconnect?

A recent article by AP's Christopher Rugaber may help put things in perspective:  there is a surging corporate demand for skills, especially for jobs touched by technology. And people laid off for an extended period of time get an additional whammy of falling behind on skills requirements. Three years isn't a long time, but in an era of increasing automation, it's now a different world than it was in 2007, before the most recent downturn.

David Altig, research director at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta is quoted as saying that workers are not only being asked to increase their output, but to broaden it, too.  With enhanced computerization, what were three jobs a few years ago may have been consolidated. Now, he said, "one person is doing all three of those jobs — and every job you fill has to have computer skills."

Being a tech guru doesn't necessarily mean an easier time on the job market, either.  During the recent downturn, many companies combined business analyst and systems analyst positions, meaning companies want individuals that can both plan, specify, then actually build solutions.

The AP report also notes that "while manufacturers advertised nearly 200,000 jobs at the end of August, a jump of about 40 percent from a year ago, hiring by manufacturers has risen less than six percent over that time — evidence that they are having a hard time finding qualified workers." Indeed, the skills in demand include the ability to manage automated production systems, as well as certifications in lean disciplines such as Six Sigma.

The challenge in today's economy is not a lack of available jobs, but a lack of updated skills. Employers, educational institutions, and policymakers needs to recognize that the economy has changed dramatically, even just in the three years since the downturn began. As the economy accelerates into growth mode -- and it will -- companies are going to be hurting for talent to enable them to compete in a hyper-competitive global economy. In fact, as shown here, there is already evidence that the skills shortage is growing, even in the midst of a period of high unemployment.  Imagine how things will tighten up as unemployment drops. Training, retraining and lifelong learning are more urgent priorities than ever before.

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