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Schools Not Cause of Skills Mismatch

Repeating something often enough does not make it true no matter how intuitively appealing the statement. I thought of that axiom after reading about companies bemoaning the lack of workers with requisite skills. This mismatch is what economists call a structural issue in the labor market. With time, workers will develop the skills in demand or employers will readjust their needs to the skills that workers possess. In the meantime, unemployment will remain high.

Let's take a closer look at this phenomenon. Despite what companies argue, I think they're asking for the impossible. For example, one company received 25,000 applications for a standard engineering position and yet said not one person was qualified ("Software Raises Bar for Hiring," The Wall Street Journal, May 31). That's hard to believe, but it is not an aberration. I don't blame employers for wanting to hire the perfect candidate. However, how realistic is that quest? Their unreasonable demands may account in part for the news about the worst unemployment rate in a year ("Worst U.S. Job Data in a Year Signals Stalling Recovery," The New York Times, Jun. 1).

Rather than admit the truth, companies blame schools for not turning out workers with exactly the qualifications they need. I've always been highly skeptical about their complaints. A new book titled Why Good People Can't Get Jobs by Peter Cappelli, a professor of management and human resources at the Wharton School, confirms my view. Cappelli explains how the widespread use of software to screen applicants makes it nearly impossible for anyone to pass muster. He cites the example of a human resources executive in the Philadelphia area who applied anonymously for a job in his own company as an experiment, and was rejected during the screening process.

Public schools have little to do with this problem. They do not exist to train students for the specific demands of existing jobs, although companies would most certainly want them to do so. Instead, schools have other responsibilities. I'm not defending schools that fail to fulfill their other duties. But that's not the same as claiming schools are derelict because they don't produce workers who can hit the ground running for a specific task.

A similar pattern is seen in higher education when companies argue that they can't find enough graduates in science, technology, engineering and math to fill openings. That's why they want more H-1B visas issued. I maintain the real reason is that holders of such visas are willing to work for less money than their American counterparts. A cartoon in the June 4 & 11th issue of The New Yorker is illustrative. It depicts a student in front of the desk of the Internship department, with the caption: "I'm looking for a career that won't be obsolete before my student loan is paid off." I think that about says it all.

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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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