2 Million 'Open Jobs'? Yes, But U.S. Has A Skills Mismatch

Jun 15, 2011
Originally published on June 15, 2011 9:52 pm

It's an eye-catching claim at a time when the unemployment rate is 9.1 percent, 13.9 million people are officially unemployed and another 8.5 million are working part-time but would like to have full-time jobs:

"There are more than two million open jobs in the U.S., in part because employers can't find workers with the advanced manufacturing skills they need." (General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt and American Express CEO Ken Chenault on the op-ed pages of The Wall Street Journal this week.)

Earlier today, All Things Considered host Robert Siegel asked Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, if that number is correct.

"Yes," said Carnevale, and the reason is "a mismatch problem. ... Even though there aren't enough jobs to go around, there are a lot of jobs that people don't have the skills to fill."

Where and what are these jobs?

"The industries that we're talking about are fairly broad-based," Carnevale said. "But the ones that are most striking are industries that have lots of what I would call 'orphan jobs.' Manufacturing, utilities, transportation, mining — a whole set of agricultural jobs."

All those industries, he said, "are dying." But because so many baby boomers will be retiring in the next decade, those industries will still produce "huge numbers of job openings that we can't fill."

In manufacturing alone, Carnevale said, "while the overall number of jobs will decline by a million jobs over the next decade, there will be 3 million job openings due to retirement."

The openings don't really require advanced degrees, he added. But employers do need workers with solid skills in math and other disciplines. And that means more emphasis on vocational training, Carnevale believes.

So, what to do? Carnevale says it requires rethinking a college-is-for-everybody attitude. And that raises some uncomfortable issues.

"Underneath this mismatch problem is a moral dilemma," said Carnevale. "If we decide that we're going to, especially in high school, begin to train people for vocations — especially vocations that ... don't require four year[s of] college — we'll quickly find that the kids who are available for that are black, Hispanic or low income. ... We'll end up 'tracking.' That makes it very difficult for political leadership and policy leadership to focus on this issue. It creates a moral dilemma where we can, if we want to, make people better off. But if we stick to the purity of our ideals, which is that everybody goes to college and gets a four-year degree, we're not going to be able to get there."

Much more from Robert's conversation with Carnevale will be on All Things Considered later today. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show. Later, we'll add the as-broadcast version of the interview to the top of this post.

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SIEGEL: With unemployment high and rising, it's hard to believe that U.S. employers are actually having trouble filling jobs. But a recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal insists they are. One of the article's authors is Jeffery Immelt, who's President Obama's job czar. He's the CEO and chair of GE. And the article says, in part, there are more than 2 million open jobs in the U.S., in part because employers can't find workers with the advanced manufacturing skills they need.

Well, that got us wondering - what and where are these jobs? And for answers we turn that to Tony Carnevale, who is director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Welcome to the program.

Mr. ANTHONY CARNEVALE (Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce): Thank you. Glad to be here.

SIEGEL: First of all, what can you tell us about these jobs?

Mr. CARNEVALE: They tend to be jobs that in the old days, 20, 25 years ago, people learned on the job. You'd hire on on the loading dock and work your way up to all kinds of different occupations, technical jobs running machines, even accountant and ultimately CEO. But employers no longer do training to qualify workers. They're happy train workers that are qualified. So we have a shortage of workers in can-do jobs. Simply taking a person with a strong back and a good work ethic and throwing them at modern manufacturing machinery will result in a disaster.

SIEGEL: But, you know, one thing that just sounds wrong about the two million jobs that are a result of a mismatch, that are open because of mismatch, that would make a lot more sense if there were six or seven million Americans who were unemployed or underemployed. But with 15 million people at least in that condition, it seems as though, unless you're in a de-populated area you'd be able to find somebody with the skills that are needed for these jobs.

Mr. CARNEVALE: Make no mistake, the American problem at the moment is there are too many people looking for work and not enough jobs. But it is also the case that underneath that huge wave of negative job statistics there is a structural problem in our ability to match people and their skills to the jobs that are available.

SIEGEL: There is a counter-argument here, which is that when the housing bubble burst, millions of Americans didn't lose their skills, they lost their money and they lost their buying power and the economy slowed down. And that's really what we have to do to get jobs going.

Mr. CARNEVALE: In the United States, manufacturing is still the number one industry. It has the highest level of output. Unfortunately, it's the fourth largest employer now, largely because of productivity increases, not because the jobs went overseas.

But what's changed is that the manufacturing jobs of today require much higher skill levels than the manufacturing jobs of yesterday. People don't just come to work and run one machine. They run several machines and work with each other.

SIEGEL: Recently, I witnessed one of Mr. Immelt's recommendations to solve the mismatch problem at work. I was in southern Virginia at a community college, local manufacturing employers have relationships with the community college. They learn - the teachers there learn what skills have to be imparted. The community college trains workers for them. Can that be an adequate substitute for a vocational secondary education or for an apprenticeship program?

Mr. CARNEVALE: In the United States, we don't really have vocational secondary programs. We've essentially built our high school system to prepare everybody to go to college and in the process, left lots of people behind. So we need to build direct relationships between employers and community colleges and, I would argue, high schools as well.

SIEGEL: Thinking back to the days when we used to have vocational high schools, one reason we don't was the notion that there's something undemocratic about tracking kids away from the prospect of a college education when they are 14 years old or whatever age that choice might be made. How do we address that problem?

Mr. CARNEVALE: Underneath this mismatch problem is a moral dilemma. If we decide that we're going to train people for vocations, especially vocations that don't require four college, we'll quickly find that the kids who are available for that are black, Hispanic or low income, and so we'll end up tracking. We can, if we want to, make people better off, but if we stick to the purity of our ideals, which is that everybody goes to college and gets a four-year degree, we're not gonna be able to get there.

SIEGEL: Well, Tony Carnevale, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. CARNEVALE: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: Tony Carnevale is the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.