January 5, 2013

Job skills gap? Skeptic says factors tell another story

The author says companies don’t invest in the work force and demand more than ever from job applicants, including a willingness to accept insufficient wages.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

For two years, Gov. Paul LePage has met with Maine business leaders to discuss the skills gap: the theory that employers have plenty of jobs, but not enough qualified people to fill them. New Democratic leaders in the Legislature recently vowed to tackle the issue, creating a bipartisan committee to meet with "business leaders, work force experts and economists."

But Peter Cappelli has some advice for the governor and legislators: Talk to some of the 51,000 Mainers who don't currently have a job.

"I guarantee that politicians will hear a much different story about the so-called skills gap from the unemployed than they're hearing from companies," Cappelli said.

Cappelli, a professor of management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, may be the nation's leading skills gap skeptic. As the rumbling about the country's unskilled work force has risen to a national din, Cappelli has become the country's contrarian voice, appearing on "60 Minutes," penning op-eds for The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and writing the book "Why Good People Can't Find Jobs."

The former co-director for the U.S. Department of Education's National Center on Education Quality of the Workforce believes that the skills gap is "an illusion," a "myth."

He says that if companies are having trouble filling jobs, it's because they're demanding more than ever from job applicants: highly specific educational training, previous experience and a willingness to work for wages that are not commensurate with the purported demand for job applicants.

Cappelli says companies also are demanding changes in the education system to make up for their own lack of investment in work-force training and employee development.

The result, he concludes, are logjams at cash-strapped community colleges, the institutions that have shouldered the vocational training burden.

Meanwhile, Cappelli said, capable people remain out of work, while companies remain understaffed.

Cappelli's points are not well-received in the business community.

In Maine, efforts by LePage, and more recently Democratic lawmakers, have been almost universally applauded by state business leaders. Newspaper coverage of the Democratic leadership's plans to tackle the skills gap prompted a flurry of opinion pieces and letters from business leaders, championing the need to better prepare Maine's work force to help grow the state economy.

Godfrey Wood, president of the Greater Portland Regional Chamber, cited a recent report for Southern Maine Community College that by 2018, 90 percent of new jobs in Maine will require some type of formal education beyond high school. The same report predicted that 4,000 high-wage jobs will go unfilled over the next 10 years due to the lack of skills.

"Part of the solution should include innovative education that brings 'career relevance' into high school and college classrooms," Wood wrote in a Dec. 14 Another View editorial in the Portland Press Herald.

In Maine, and nationally, the skills gap complaint among the business community has been seized as a political opportunity by policymakers.

But as Augusta lawmakers evaluate Maine's work force needs and contemplate reforms that may require re-prioritizing funding, Cappelli remains skeptical.

"Nobody wants to whack businesses on the nose and tell them what they're doing wrong," he said. "Everybody wants to look like they're helping business."

Some Maine business officials concede that they could be more creative in finding the workers they need. However, they dispute Cappelli's arguments that the skills gap is driven by a wage gap and that companies have thrust work-force training onto the public education system.

"I don't think it's fair that Mr. Cappelli is laying all the blame at the feet of businesses," said Patrick Shrader, vice president of marketing at Arundel Machine Tool, a precision manufacturing company that employs about 75 people in York County.

(Continued on page 2)

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