(From the Fort Worth Business Journal May 7, 2012)
The U.S. employment situation has become a dichotomy. While the unemployment rate has fallen some, joblessness is still at high levels. Yet companies across the nation are reporting they can’t find people to fill certain positions. The economy has changed and so have job opportunities, which often require different skills. The result is a jobs gap – people willing to work but without the requisite skills.
At a macro level, the two most effective solutions to address this problem are to retrain the segment of the American workforce whose skills are no longer relevant and to reform our educational system with more emphasis on math and science, the building blocks of the technology-driven global economy. Both of these fixes are huge structural issues that would require massive time, expense and social re-engineering. Given the current impasse in Congress, I don’t expect a solution from our elected officials.
Nevertheless, the situation affects my business. As an executive, I am concerned about the under-skilled American workforce and I’m not confident that today’s students are getting the education they need or really care that they are falling behind. However, the solutions to those problems are beyond my control, other than keeping informed about the issues and voting in each election.
I’ve concluded that there is a Darwinian aspect to the gap between available jobs and the scarcity of skilled people to fill them. The fittest will survive so our business must adapt better than the competition in order to recruit and retain the top employees. The best thing for me to do is focus on how our business can remain competitive, continue to grow and retain our best performers, as I am a firm believer that top management needs to be actively involved in the hiring and retention process.
Competing for qualified employees is not only about money. Managers should be more innovative than just throwing money at the problem, which isn’t fiscally responsible and creates wage inflation. Indeed, the first issue is to find the talent. Flexibility comes into play. Employers may have to settle for the majority – and not all – of the skills on their wish list as the “perfect” candidate will be the needle in the haystack of resumés. Employers who can be flexible in their hiring demands and find employees with most of the needed skills will have a jump on the competition. They can then supplement with contract employees to fill gaps.
Let’s turn to the other side of the equation – employees. Once talented employees have been hired, the challenge is to retain them. An office environment that offers excitement will play a big role in that. That excitement may spring from new assignments, increased responsibility or friendly internal competition. Yet alongside that should be a spirit of teamwork and collaboration. Feedback and recognition complete the package. Praise in front of peers is a powerful tool to not only reward those who achieved, but also to motivate those who need to improve. These qualities create a workplace that will inspire employees, keep them engaged and even nurture referrals for recruits from inside and outside the company.
What can American workers do to make sure that they remain competitive in today’s workplace?
First, they can’t assume that the government or employers will solve their problems for them. If they do, they won’t keep their jobs or find new ones. The challenge for American workers is to adapt and to make themselves as competitive as possible regardless of whether they have a job or are looking.
Retraining and acquiring new skills is on the top of the list. As an executive with a technology placement firm, I see a perennial shortage of programmers with Java skills. Someone with those skills can easily find work in the Metroplex. Beyond that, a strong work ethic is a given and taking personal responsibility for your own situation is paramount. That can mean accepting a temporary placement, taking a cut in pay to get a job that will teach new skills or becoming entrepreneurial as a contract employee. A willingness to relocate is an indicator of adapting to the changing employment environment as well. For example, North Dakota has booming energy and agriculture industries, resulting in the lowest unemployment rate in the country. Jobs are available there for people willing to move.
Clearly, Americans need to get back to work. The quickest way to do that is to fill the jobs open now, but to do so requires that employers become more flexible in their demands and that employees seize the initiative to make themselves more employable. If both sides work toward that, we can close the jobs gap and speed the U.S. economy to full recovery quicker.