Are Employers to Blame for the Skills Gap?

In a new survey, workers say they’ve been forced to develop new skills on their own.


Even with a jobless rate of 9 percent and 14 million unemployed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported this month that there are currently 3.4 million job openings. While the jobless rate has only fallen slightly from its peak above 10 percent, the number of job openings as reported by the BLS has increased 38 percent since the end of the recession in June 2009.

Labor economists say a skills gap—an imbalance between the skills companies demand and the experience of the U.S. workforce—is partly to blame. Employers in numerous surveys have said they're having trouble finding applicants who fit the requirements for open positions.

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A recent survey from The Manufacturing Institute is one example. The Institute found that 67 percent of more than 1,100 manufacturers reported a moderate to severe shortage of available, qualified workers. Of those surveyed, 56 percent said they anticipate the shortage will grow over the next three to five years. Overall, the study found that about 5 percent of current jobs, or up to 600,000 jobs, remain unfilled due to a lack of qualified candidates.

In another survey by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, 40 percent of the members of the Inc. 500 (a group of the country's fastest-growing companies) reported that the biggest impediment to further expanding their companies is "finding qualified people." 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 workers next year. The challenge is finding the right employees.

A third survey by the Career Advisory Board at DeVry University of more than 500 hiring managers and nearly 730 job seekers found that 72 percent of job seekers are overconfident and do not possess the necessary skills for the positions they're applying for, while only 14 percent of hiring managers believe job seekers have the qualities needed for their open spots.

[See Skills Gap Plagues U.S. Manufacturing Industry.]

Perhaps employers are partly to blame for the skills gap, according to new research from consulting firm Accenture. The majority of workers (55 percent) report that they are under pressure to develop additional skills to succeed in their current and future jobs, but only 21 percent say they have acquired new skills through company-provided formal training during the past five years, according to a study released Wednesday by Accenture. For the study, Accenture surveyed 1,088 employed and unemployed workers and found that 52 percent have added technology skills in the past five years, but many hadn't updated other in-demand skills such as problem solving (31 percent), analytical skills (26 percent), and managerial skills (21 percent).

Most workers surveyed (63 percent) say they have developed new skills through on-the-job experience. Less than half of respondents (49 percent) report that their employer does a good job of providing a clear understanding of the skills needed for different roles and career paths. "It's going to be critical for organizations to define what new skills they're going to need," says David Smith, managing director for Accenture Talent & Organization. "Organizations haven't really done a good job at articulating the new skills of the future."

Respondents say they have taken it upon themselves to develop skills over time. More than two-thirds of workers (68 percent) believe it is their responsibility to update their skills to ensure their value in current and future roles.

"This is pointing to a call for action," Smith says. "The call for action is, 'OK. We've been through some lean times. We probably haven't spent on training in the way we should.' ... The way forward to get out of this is to actually begin to reinvest in talent and talent creation."

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In a wide disparity, only 53 percent of unemployed workers report that they understand which skills are likely to be in demand in the next five years, compared with an overwhelming majority (80 percent) of employed workers who report the same. Smith's advice for the unemployed: "Don't become disconnected from the marketplace. That's the biggest danger."