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What Skilled Worker Shortage?

As readers of this column know, I've always been skeptical about the claim made by companies that they can't find enough skilled workers to fill existing job openings ("A Closer Look at Skills Mismatch in the Workplace," Sept. 21). My view was validated most recently in the form of an essay by Peter Cappelli, professor of management at the Wharton School and director of Wharton's Center for Human Resources ("Why Companies Aren't Getting the Employees They Need, The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 24).

Cappelli correctly maintains that "the real culprits are the employers themselves. With an abundance of workers to choose from, employers are demanding more of job candidates than ever before. They want prospective workers to be able to fill a role right way, without any training or ramp-up time." In other words, they're seeking the impossible. No matter what students studied at college or what their grades were, no graduate is going to be able to hit the ground running once hired. There will always be the need to train even the most talented hires. It's always been that way.

Supporting Cappelli's view were responses to a New York Times article about the reasons so many initial STEM majors end up switching to other majors or fail to get any degree at all ("Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It's Just So Darn Hard)," Nov. 5). Many readers explained that even though they had advanced STEM degrees, they have been unable to find work commensurate with their background. Why would students want to invest the time, effort and money to get a STEM degree if they knew that their chances of finding work were so slim or that salaries were so low ("Giving Up on Math and Science Careers," The New York Times, Nov. 8)?

The real reason for the complaint made by companies is that they don't want to pay what is necessary. It wasn't too long ago that companies let go over-55-year-old workers with precisely the skills they claim they are now desperately seeking. They did so because they wanted younger workers who would accept lower wages and benefits. Realizing that they made a strategic blunder, companies are attempting to undo the damage by pressuring lawmakers to lift the caps on the issuance of H-1B visas. They know from experience that imported workers are willing to toil at lower wages than their American counterparts. By letting in unlimited numbers of workers from abroad, the government is essentially providing companies with cheap labor.

Cappelli offers three solutions to the problem: work with education providers, bring back aspects of apprenticeship, and promote from within. I'd like to add a fourth that is counterintuitive: increase the number of liberal arts graduates. The present emphasis is on vocationally oriented majors. Although these can be helpful in landing an initial position, they can ultimately shortchange students because business is rapidly changing. As a result, what is in demand today can be passe tomorrow. Students who are broadly educated stand a better chance of adapting to new conditions.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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