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2/29/2012
12:01 PM
Rob Preston
Rob Preston
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Skills Shortage? Quit Whining

If "people are our most important resource," why do most employers expect this precious asset to show up gift wrapped?



Mention "talent shortage," whether you're talking about IT, manufacturing, healthcare, or any other professional group, and brace for a firestorm of acrimony. The latest controversy surrounds a Wall Street Journal opinion piece that cites a recent Deloitte Consulting survey in making the case that 600,000 U.S. manufacturing jobs are going unfilled during a period of high unemployment because of "workforce shortages or skills deficiencies in production positions such as machinists, craft workers, and technicians."

Cue the comments:

"My guess is that it's just 'cheap labor' policies designed by lobbyists for industry ... so that they can make a case for why they need to bring more cheap foreign workers into the country using guest worker visas ..." writes one Mary Schubert. "Lobbyists for industry have been doing this in the technology field for decades."

"After three decades of cutting jobs and short-changing the training of future workers, they find that there's suddenly no one able to perform the job," writes one Bryan Brune. "Shocking ..."

The range of skeptical comments could just as well apply to any story claiming an IT skills shortage. And especially when it comes to manufacturing jobs, the critics have reason to question the new conventional wisdom.

For one thing, the manufacturer respondents to the Deloitte survey reported that 5% of high-skill jobs (translating to the 600,000 number) remain unfilled because of a skills shortage. But isn't a 5% labor imbalance in any sector considered by economists to be "frictional," reflecting a natural mismatch between supply and demand related not only to skills, but also to salaries, job locations (like with that North Texas-based semiconductor engineer whose wife went running to President Obama), and a variety of other factors?

A perspective in the Journal piece attributed to Dr. Peter Cappelli, an HR expert at Wharton business school, does the skills shortage protagonists no favors. Noting that most manufacturers no longer run in-house apprenticeship programs because "they're too costly and time-consuming," the authors then quote Cappelli as saying that companies are seeking "just-in-time" employees--technically trained and ready to start work. So manufacturers want perfect workers, but insist on having others train them?

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It's time that employers, especially the largest ones, IT and otherwise, stop whining about the talent shortage and start doing something about it. The Journal article lays out a number of worthy programs initiated by the National Association of Manufacturers whereby companies are working with colleges and nonprofits to develop the technical skills they need.

In IT, myriad programs exist at the federal, state, and local levels. But rather than depend on government STEM education subsidies and handouts, tech employers (and the economy at large) are better served when they put their own skin in the game.

In one relatively small but nonetheless powerful example, top IT executives from JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, UBS, and NBCUniversal sit on the board of a nonprofit organization called NPower, whose Technology Service Corps provides free IT instruction to disadvantaged young adults in the New York City area. TSC provides 18- to 25-year-olds who have a high school diploma or GED equivalent with a 22-week program that involves extensive classroom instruction, internships, job placement services, and mentoring.

Since 2002, TSC has run 26 classes and graduated close to 500 students, 87% of whom are employed, continuing their education, or doing both, the organization says. Employers of TSC's grads include Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Accenture, NY Charities, The Center for Employment Opportunities, NY Foundling Hospital, New York University, TD Ameritrade, UBS, and the Henry Street Settlement.

NPower isn't positioning TSC as an IT full-employment program, notes board member Jonathan Beyman, global head of operations and technology at Citigroup. It's more about helping inner-city kids than closing IT skills gaps. But Beyman concurs with the notion that this country could use many more private-sector-initiated IT training programs. NPower, in fact, is looking to expand TSC to other cities (though Beyman says it's premature to disclose them).

He acknowledges that the IT talent shortage isn't everywhere, for every skill. But he says he's seeing a severe shortage in information security--"firewalls, intrusion detection, anti-phishing, internal ethical hacking kinds of stuff," as well as in high-end application development. "We're in a war for talent that's as fierce as I've ever seen," he says. "And there are no signs of it abating."

What Beyman likes about TSC grads--his organization hired two from the most recent graduating class of 47--is that they're hungry. One of those two hires, a young woman who started at Citi as an intern, took notes at every meeting, asked questions, sought challenges. "This is the type of person I want to hire," Beyman says. "I want someone who's smart--but more than smart. I'm looking for people who work hard and want to prove themselves."

If "people are our most important resource," as employers are wont to proclaim, why do most of them expect this precious asset to show up gift wrapped on day one, and to increase in value with little effort on their part? In InformationWeek's most recent IT Salary Survey, whose full results we'll release in April, only 28% of the 13,880 IT pros we polled said they expect to receive additional education or training as one of their employee benefits this year.

Something's wrong here, and it has nothing to do with a skills shortage.

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