March 01, 2012

Mention "talent shortage," whether you're talking about IT, manufacturing, healthcare, or any other professional group, and brace for a firestorm of acrimony. The latest controversy surrounds a Wall Street Journal opinion piece that cites a recent Deloitte Consulting survey in making the case that 600,000 U.S. manufacturing jobs are going unfilled during a period of high unemployment because of "workforce shortages or skills deficiencies in production positions such as machinists, craft workers, and technicians."

Cue the comments:
"My guess is that it's just 'cheap labor' policies designed by lobbyists for industry ... so that they can make a case for why they need to bring more cheap foreign workers into the country using guest worker visas ..." writes one Mary Schubert. "Lobbyists for industry have been doing this in the technology field for decades."

"After three decades of cutting jobs and short-changing the training of future workers, they find that there's suddenly no one able to perform the job," writes one Bryan Brune. "Shocking ..."

The range of skeptical comments could just as well apply to any story claiming an IT skills shortage. And especially when it comes to manufacturing jobs, the critics have reason to question the new conventional wisdom.

For one thing, the manufacturer respondents to the Deloitte survey reported that 5% of high-skill jobs (translating to the 600,000 number) remain unfilled because of a skills shortage. But isn't a 5% labor imbalance in any sector considered by economists to be "frictional," reflecting a natural mismatch between supply and demand related not only to skills, but also to salaries, job locations (like with that North Texas-based semiconductor engineer whose wife went running to President Obama), and a variety of other factors?

A perspective in the Journal piece attributed to Dr. Peter Cappelli, an HR expert at Wharton business school, does the skills shortage protagonists no favors. Noting that most manufacturers no longer run in-house apprenticeship programs because "they're too costly and time-consuming," the authors then quote Cappelli as saying that companies are seeking "just-in-time" employees--technically trained and ready to start work. So manufacturers want perfect workers, but insist on having others train them?

It's time that employers, especially the largest ones, IT and otherwise, stop whining about the talent shortage and start doing something about it. The Journal article lays out a number of worthy programs initiated by the National Association of Manufacturers whereby companies are working with colleges and nonprofits to develop the technical skills they need.

In IT, myriad programs exist at the federal, state, and local levels. But rather than depend on government STEM education subsidies and handouts, tech employers (and the economy at large) are better served when they put their own skin in the game.

In one relatively small but nonetheless powerful example, top IT executives from JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, UBS, and NBCUniversal sit on the board of a nonprofit organization called NPower, whose Technology Service Corps provides free IT instruction to disadvantaged young adults in the New York City area. TSC provides 18- to 25-year-olds who have a high school diploma or GED equivalent with a 22-week program that involves extensive classroom instruction, internships, job placement services, and mentoring.

To read the entire original article, visit InformationWeek.