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Bridging the skills gap poses tough challenge
Photo: On a broad scale, employers say they can’t find qualified new hires, and the quality of applicants is poor, according to a new survey cited by Barron County Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Dave Armstrong. BusinessNorth photo
Bridging the “skills gap” is a growing concern among employers and educators, with both groups struggling to ensure workers are available and ready to fill today’s complicated jobs.
The challenge is significant, several job experts said at a March 17 conference in Rice Lake. Potential employees, they said, lack both soft skills (such as showing up for work on time or calling their supervisor when sick) and hard skills (such as the technical expertise to operate modern computer-controlled machinery).
How large is the problem? According to Bob Meyer, president of the Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College (WITC) system, the regional unemployment rate would decline by 2.5 percent if employers could find enough skilled workers to fill all of their existing technical job vacancies.
“Forget terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. The next global war will be fought over human talent, and America is already losing,” said presenter Dan Conroy, human resources director at the Nexen Group in Webster.
On a broad scale, employers say they can’t find qualified new hires, and the quality of applicants is poor, said Barron County Economic Development Corp. (BCEDC) Executive Director Dave Armstrong.
“I’m hearing applicants are no-shows for interviews and – here’s one that really boggles me – people are offered jobs and don’t show up on their start date. They can’t be found, and there’s no further contact,” Armstrong said.
Facing those hurdles, BCEDC, Manpower, UWBarron County and WITC facilitated a survey to shed light on the problem. Survey questions were designed to reveal what employers need in their workforces, what skills are missing with applicants and what skills will be needed in the future. Some of the findings were expected and others were surprises:
• Overwhelmingly, employers said their applicants need better customer service skills.
• Insufficient general maintenance skills were cited by 28 percent, and office skills followed closely.
• At lease a quarter of respondents said applicants had inadequate trade skills, business and accounting knowledge, welding skills and sales backgrounds for the jobs that need to be filled.
Basic, or “soft” skill deficiencies differed somewhat between current employees and potential hires. Deficiencies among current workers were highest for safety awareness, work ethic, productivity, attendance and listening. Potential hires had the greatest weakness in organizing and using information, integrity and honesty, speaking, reading, writing, creativity, problem solving and motivation.
Those deficiencies, employers said, stand in stark contrast to what they deem important. According to the survey, companies expect their workers to have good attendance and punctuality, show initiative and motivation, exhibit integrity and honesty, work productively, show good teamwork, provide good customer service, operate equipment properly, listen willingly and make good decisions.
The regional results largely mirror those found by Manpower, which has conducted a talent shortage survey for the past eight years.
“We’re in a new normal. The only thing that’s certain is uncertainty,” said Beth Mathison of the Eau Claire Manpower office. Citing a recent conversation she had with executives of a Wisconsin company, she said the problem is very costly.
“They left four to five million dollars on the table last year because they had an order they couldn’t fill because they couldn’t get people to make parts they needed,” she said. “Wow. Beyond the lost sale, think about the lost opportunity. Will they ever get that order again?”
Complicating matters, there’s a mismatch in perception about whether recent graduates are sufficiently prepared to fill positions in the workforce, according to a 2012 McKinsey & Co. survey.
Forty-two percent of employers said yes, and 45 percent of students agreed. When asked the same question, 75 percent of educators felt students were ready.
“I think our educators do a great job in the classroom, but maybe we, as business people and community leaders, have not helped them to understand what we need students to be doing so that they can be fully prepared for the workforce,” Mathison said.
Setting high expectations is key, Conroy said, along with educating young people about the high-paying and challenging technical jobs that are available.
“Technical colleges will get you a J-O-B degree,” he stressed.
“The current generation thrives on technology. I know they frustrate us with a lot of things, but I think they’re amazing. If we have high expectations, they will meet them,” Conroy said, but he cautioned “If we have low expectations, they will meet them, too.”
It’s not enough to form committees and complain about the problem, he said.
“Leave your plant and go over to the other guy’s building. Talk to them. Ask how they partner with schools. Then go to schools and say you’d love them to bring their students to your plant. Have an in-service; get educators in your building. You can’t wait for the other guy to do it,” he said.
Jim Wood, founder of Wood Communications Group, has participated in several efforts to address workforce problems. He urged the business community to stop viewing the educational infrastructure as K-12 in one column, technical college in another and fouryear universities in a third. The training process has evolved into a 40- to 50-year continuum that has complicated relationships among parents, students, teachers, employers and customers, he said.
Despite a common perception, he said most K-12 teachers – 84 percent – acknowledge the education system must change, according to a survey conducted in May and June of 2013. Fifty-six percent of teachers believe sufficient funding already is available.
“What this suggests to me is they’re not arguing about what needs to happen. They’re arguing about who’s going to be in charge of it and how they move money from budgets that currently are restrained by state and federal requirements,” Wood said.
In small focus groups, he said, “Every place we went, teachers and business people wanted to talk to each other.”
Some school districts already are taking that step.“We’re always looking to enhance our youth apprenticeship opportunities,” said Craig Broeren, superintendent of Barron Schools.
The Chetek-Weyerhaeuser school district recently approved $250,000 to develop its trade curriculum, buy machinery and make connections with local firms for metal fabrication, welding and milling programs. Student participants will earn certifications, said Larry Zeman, the district’s high school principal.
“We certainly hear the message and certainly agree with the data with respect to providing skills that kids need for jobs,” he said.Previous BusinessNorth Exclusives Articles:
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