Last month, the Labor Department reported that about 14 million people were out of work. The unemployment rate remains stubbornly high above 9 percent, where it's been stuck since May 2009, and Friday's jobs report isn't expected to show much improvement in the stalled labor market. But another government statistic reported each month paints a more nuanced picture of the employment situation in the United States.
It's called the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, a relatively new report that was started by the Labor Department in late 2000. Its latest report showed approximately 3.2 million job openings in July in the United States, about the same number as June. The total number of openings is up about 1.1 million jobs from July 2009, but it's still short of the 4.4 million openings reported in December 2007. Although there are about four active job seekers for every current job opening, the survey shows that even in a slow-growing economy, there are job opportunities for applicants with the right skills and education.
"The economy itself remains dynamic," says Patrick O'Keefe, director of economic research at accounting firm J.H. Cohn and former deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Labor. "It may not be as dynamic during a downturn ... but the labor market is constantly shifting."
Employers say they're having trouble finding applicants who fit the requirements for open positions. In a recent survey by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, 40 percent of the members of the Inc. 500 (a group of the fastest-growing companies in the United States) reported that the biggest impediment to growing their companies was "finding qualified people."
"That clearly speaks to the skills gap that exists," says Thom Ruhe, director of entrepreneurship for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. "So we've got this paradigm of millions that are unemployed, yet there are literally hundreds of thousands of jobs that are available if we had the right skilled labor to put there, so there's a challenge."
Of the companies surveyed, 96 percent said they plan to add employees in 2012, and 41 percent say they expect to hire more than 20 people next year. The challenge is finding the right employees.
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Going forward, labor experts say one of the most troubling trends in the jobs market is the number of long-term unemployed—workers who have been out of work for at least six months and have looked for a job within the last 30 days. Currently, that group includes six million Americans—or 43 percent of the total number of unemployed workers. The average duration of unemployment now stands at about 40 weeks, meaning many job seekers have been unemployed for almost a full year. Experts worry that the long-term unemployed are losing the skills that once made them valuable before they lost their jobs. "[There is] a mismatch between the demands of the job and the qualifications of the applicants," O'Keefe says. "That mismatch is the reason why willing individuals go unemployed and important jobs go unfilled."
Earlier surveys have revealed similar trends. In May, ManPower released its sixth-annual talent shortage survey. In it, 52 percent of U.S. employers said they were having difficulty filling mission-critical positions within their companies, up from 14 percent in 2010, an all-time high for the survey. When asked why they were having trouble filling positions, two of the most popular answers employers gave were "lack of 'hard' job skills or technical skills" (47 percent) and "lack of experience" (35 percent). "The expectations for various positions are rising as companies are trying to get people to do more with less or do more with the same," says Jonas Prising, president of the Americas at ManPower.
On ManPower's list of the 10 hardest jobs to fill in the United States were some highly technical jobs like engineers and machinists, as well as some that may seem surprising, like administrative assistants and sales representatives. Prising says those jobs have changed dramatically in recent years. For instance, strong typing skills used to be the critical skill for administrative assistants, but these days, the position often requires information technology skills such as coordinating webinars or using publishing platforms like Microsoft PowerPoint.