Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

July 30, 2013

Blame employers, not workers, for 'skills gap'

By Stephen Dick Daily News
Greensburg Daily News

---- — One of the hallmarks of the tepid economic recovery is something called a skills gap. Employers complain that they have jobs to fill and there is no one qualified to do them.

But the skills gap is a self-fulfilling fantasy conjured up by businesses and corporations to not only keep from hiring, but to place all of the burden of training for their jobs on individuals and the government. It’s another classic example of public costs and private profits.

I don’t contest the fact that there are manufacturing jobs out there that require intense training. And I have no doubt that the majority of applicants lack the necessary qualifications. But to listen to right-wing politicians and their big business backers blame it on lazy Americans who don’t want to work is a bridge too far.

Last week on “Real Time with Bill Maher,” Mike Rowe -- former host of the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs” -- talked about unqualified workers and how people don’t want to do jobs like plumbing anymore. He spoke of machinery company Caterpillar being unable to find qualified workers for its jobs. Of course, he didn’t say that Caterpillar has gone down the union-busting path and slashed wages.

I have a friend who was hired on at Progress Rail -- a subsidiary of Caterpillar -- as a welder at $12 an hour. Welding is a skilled trade and, with a union, used to pay upwards of $25 an hour. Anytime there is a job fair in my neck of the woods -- central Indiana -- hundreds of applicants show up and most leave disappointed. If a new pizza joint opens and needs 25 workers, hundreds line up to fill out an application. People don’t want jobs? A right-wing myth to let employers off the hook for not hiring.

Since the crash of 2008, those idled by layoffs flocked to community colleges, trade schools and anywhere they might get extra training to be competitive in an economic system stacked against them. Then a funny thing happened. Graduates took their new knowledge to employers, who said, “Oh, I see you’ve learned A, B, C and D. That’s impressive, but we need E. Sorry.” So they probably ended up going to the pizza joint only to be told they were overqualified.

But forget picky employers and low wages for a moment. The real lie behind the skills gap myth is in the area of training. It’s way past time for employers to do what they once did -- offer on-the-job training. How many potential workers would show up for a manufacturing job if it was advertised at $25 to $30 an hour with full benefits after a 120-day training period that would pay $10 an hour? I’ll bet you couldn’t see the end of the line.

It’s not a skills gap. We’re all capable of learning jobs with training. And it’s not lazy workers. It’s training. Businesses want to pass these financial burdens onto individuals and schools to learn the ever-elusive E. Then employers will require F. Even with wages at rock bottom, companies won’t spend to train.

In Indiana, we’re looking at a training program that would combine a high-school education with on-the-job training. It’s modeled on a successful program in Germany (where economics, for the most part, are done right).

But here’s the kicker. In Germany, businesses pick up 75 percent of the training costs. So it remains a pipe dream in the U.S. where businesses are allowed to do anything they want to increase their profit as if nothing else mattered. In the U.S., it’s easier to blame shiftless workers and let jobs languish than for employers to pay for the necessary training.

Stephen Dick is a columnist for CNHI News Service. He can be reached at