When it Comes to the Skills Gap, Perceptions Matter

This is the second post in a series this week discussing different perspectives on the results of NLC’s 2013 Local Economic Conditions Survey.

With the recent release of the March jobs numbers, we are quickly reminded that what may finally seem like recovery must be viewed with cautious optimism. Our first blog post in this series dug deeper into the realities of what appears to be a strong and growing real estate market, one in which residential property improvements have largely overshadowed lingering and detrimental challenges in the commercial property market.

This post examines city officials’ perceptions about the labor market as well as skills challenges that may be posing structural barriers to sustained local and national recovery.

Concerns Over Skills Gap

The changing nature and composition of the economy has highlighted the necessity of a local workforce with skills that are appropriately aligned and matched with employer demand.

Unfortunately, more than one in two city officials (53%) report that current local workforce skills are posing a problem for the economic health of their communities. Nearly nine in 10 city officials (88%) note that workforce alignment has not improved over the past year.

Percent of City Officials Reporting Change in Workforce Skills Match to Demand of Local Employers, source: Local Economic Conditions 2013

Perception vs. Reality

We know that a so-called “skills gap” is not the only driver of challenges in the labor market. A skills gap is often the perception, or face, of a much more complex and tangled web of trends relating to a shrinking labor force, long term unemployment, underemployment and divergent hiring patterns.

The facts are stark: the labor market is shrinking, the economy is not creating enough jobs, and those dropping out appear to be in the prime of their working years, ages 25-54. The longer this continues, the more likely this pool will become unemployed in the longer-term, with deterioration of skills, networks and trust in the market to provide opportunity for them.

As reported in the Atlantic, “We increasingly have a bifurcated labor market…the job market looks normal for people who have been out of work for less than 6 months, and horribly dysfunctional for people who have been out of work longer than that.”

In addition to a shrinking labor market and longer-term unemployment, we are also facing an under-employment problem.  A Wall Street Journal analysis of recent U.S. Labor Department data shows that “284,000 graduates—those with at least a bachelor’s degree—are working minimum-wage jobs in 2012, including 37,000 holders of advanced degrees. That’s down from a peak of 327,000 in 2010, but double the number in 2007 and up 70% from a decade earlier.”

This is a problem in and of itself, with increasing college debt burdens and decreasing wages, but more so, because many with higher skills are taking middle and lower skill jobs, crowding those at the low end of the skills ladder out of the job market.

This rings particularly true given that we are seeing less job creation at the higher-end of the skills spectrum.  Brookings recently released a study finding that employers are indeed hiring more readily across the U.S., but that this is driven by industries such as construction, hospitality and healthcare.

A middle-skills gap appears to be a reality, particularly in the industrial trades, which have received decreased attention in high schools over the years from parents and guidance counselors as viable career options.  But even in these sectors, claims of uncompetitive wages, undesirable locations and work shifts, and poor hiring practices and systems are also at play.

Perceptions Matter

So, at the end of the day, a skills gap is but one of a host of challenges undergirding potential structural issues in the labor and jobs markets. Regardless, local officials, apparently nearly 90 percent of them, have been confronted with the reality of businesses telling them that they cannot find qualified workers.  This threat of employers picking up and moving, or choosing to hire or locate elsewhere, means that businesses are not happy and are not or will not be job creators for the community.

Cities across the country, from Avondale, Ariz. to St. Paul, Minn., are exploring ways to be both responsive to their business community while also tackling the heart of these complex problems in order to open pathways to employment for their residents.

They are partnering with businesses, workforce systems, economic development organizations, educational institutions and other stakeholders to examine the depth and scope of labor market issues and to educate residents for available employment. They are also placing greater responsibility on the business community to provide training opportunities for potential and current employees and engage in more sensible hiring practices.

The Latest in Economic Development

This week’s blog discusses a new report focused on the recent (and future) performance of the Great Plains, the Boston Consulting Group’s take on the skills gap, an example of the “knowledge problem” with regard to incentives in Oregon, and preparing your city for millennials. Comment below or send to common@nlc.org.

Get the last edition of “The Latest in Economic Development.”

A new report by Joel Kotkin takes on the role of America’s Great Plains in the 21st century. Many observers (those on the coasts) had predicted the region’s downfall, but in reality, the Great Plains have done very well: “Paced by strong growth in agriculture, manufacturing and energy – as well as a growing tech sector – the Great Plains now boasts the lowest unemployment rate of any region.” Three factors will continue this trend: 1) natural resource wealth; 2) technological advancement; and 3) demographic changes. Download the full report here.

The Boston Consulting Group says that the “skills gap in US manufacturing is less pervasive than many believe.” This statement follows the consulting firm’s continued predictions of a resurgent US manufacturing sector. BCG notes that the shortage represents less than 1% of all US manufacturing workers and less than 8% of highly skilled manufacturing workers. Furthermore, “only seven states – six of which are in the bottom quartile of US state manufacturing output – show significant or severe skills gaps.” That said, the report notes that a skills gap could be a growing problem down the road, particularly as high-skilled manufacturing workers begin to retire. The release also highlights a few programs designed to close the gap, including Quick Start in Georgia and the Austin Polytechnical Academy in Chicago.

Salesforce.com’s recent decision to open in office in Portland, Oregon, highlights the murky environment of economic development attraction, where imperfect information often places officials between a rock and a hard place. Utah was also trying to land the firm and was purportedly preparing to offer a multi-million dollar package, but no deal materialized. On the surface, the end result makes Oregon look foolish for offering generous terms when with no real competitor, but the idea that Oregon was pre-emptively preparing for an incentive war is probably misguided; the Oregon Business Development Department said that its offer wasn’t based on what Utah was or wasn’t offering. It “weighted the value of the Salesforce jobs against the cost of incentives.”

At Governing.com, Bill Fulton prophesizes that “just like baby boomers, the preferences of the millennials will drive our society for two generations. They’re making location decisions based on their idea of quality of life. And they’re going to make all those decisions in the next few years – by the time they’re 35.” Fulton reckons that if cities want to attract these up-and-comers, decision makers and planners only have a few years to set the tone. But he likes what he is seeing; from Omaha, Nebraska to Rochester, New York, second tier cities are developing urban cores to cater to millennial tastes.

*** The “Latest in” will go on a short hiatus and return in December.

Why the Workforce Act Matters — Part I

This is the first in a series on the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) and the belief by the National League of Cities (NLC) that Congress must reauthorize and modernize the Act to ensure that it meets the needs of today’s workers and employers. In this first blog we will explore the foundation of the program, which is commonly referred to as the local public-private partnership (which includes local business leaders and local city and county elected officials), the one-stop system, and how these translate programmatically at the local level.

Over the next five weeks, NLC will publish other blogs that will address the kinds of job training that WIA programs offer, the impact that these programs have on workers and employers, some examples of effective programs, the kinds of changes to WIA NLC can and cannot support, and what members of the Human Development Committee are doing to ensure that the Congress is aware of city elected officials legislative wants and concerns.

Why the Workforce Investment Act Matters — Part I

By Neil Bomberg

Every year, the federal government invests billions of dollars in the nation’s workforce development system. Among the programs funded is the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) which provides training and employment services to millions of unemployed, underemployed and disadvantaged Americans through a national network of one-stop career centers that are governed by local workforce investment boards and city and county elected officials.

When WIA became law in 1998 it included a completely new and innovative approach to delivering workforce development services. One-stop career centers have become the backbone of a seamless employment-services delivery system in every state. These one stops are operated and governed at the local level by local workforce boards, comprised of business leaders, and city and county elected officials. They make up the public-private partnership for which this program is known.

The one-stops have provided workers and employers alike with access to the full range of employment services that have included job placement assistance, training, credentialing, unemployment benefits and career guidance, as well as access to other relevant government services, including 17 types of federal training and education programs. Over the past several years, these one-stop centers have successfully provided upwards of nine million Americans per year with employment assistance and millions of employers with skilled workers.

Most of the nine million Americans who enter the WIA system receive “core services” which are generally described as job search and job placement assistance, labor-market information, workplace counseling, and preliminary skills assessments. Others receive “intensive services” which are generally described as comprehensive skills assessments, group counseling, individual career counseling, case management, and short-term pre-vocational services, such as how to write a résumé and prepare for an interview. Both of these services are designed to help those looking for work and who have employable skills, find a job quickly. A smaller number receive “job training services.” These are designed to provide WIA clients with industry-recognized skills so that they may obtain employment, especially after core and intensive services do not result in finding a job.