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Friday, July 02, 2010

So TRAIN them, dammit!!
Posted by Jill | 5:08 AM
For the last thirty years, we've watched corporations shed jobs and smug job-secure talking heads in the media talk about how the unemployed need to seek "retraining". There's not an economic plan we've seen in the last three decades that didn't give lip service to "gaining new skills." The problem with gaining such skills is that often they have to be done right on the job, because of the specific nature of equipment or of systems used.

In my last three jobs, I did not have pre-existing skills in the programming languages or tools used. Yes, when it was just about writing code I could buy a book for forty bucks and Barnes and Noble and be ahead of the curve when I arrived on the job. But when it's a specific application-building took, let's say, that doesn't involve the direct writing of code, or as is the case in my current job, having to know something about how clinical trials are done for oncology, it's all on-the-job training. Some of it has been accomplished through company-paid training, but a good chunk of it has been just learning as I go. Mine is a job that requires a master's degree and some experience or a bachelor's degree and more experience. But what about manufacturing workers?

Now it seems that the manufacturing sector has a new excuse for not hiring: They can't find people with the right skills:
Factory owners have been adding jobs slowly but steadily since the beginning of the year, giving a lift to the fragile economic recovery. And because they laid off so many workers — more than two million since the end of 2007 — manufacturers now have a vast pool of people to choose from.

Yet some of these employers complain that they cannot fill their openings.

Plenty of people are applying for the jobs. The problem, the companies say, is a mismatch between the kind of skilled workers needed and the ranks of the unemployed.


As unlikely as it would seem against this backdrop, manufacturers who want to expand find that hiring is not always easy. During the recession, domestic manufacturers appear to have accelerated the long-term move toward greater automation, laying off more of their lowest-skilled workers and replacing them with cheaper labor abroad.

Now they are looking to hire people who can operate sophisticated computerized machinery, follow complex blueprints and demonstrate higher math proficiency than was previously required of the typical assembly line worker.

Makers of innovative products like advanced medical devices and wind turbines are among those growing quickly and looking to hire, and they too need higher skills.

“That’s where you’re seeing the pain point,” said Baiju R. Shah, chief executive of BioEnterprise, a nonprofit group in Cleveland trying to turn the region into a center for medical innovation. “The people that are out of work just don’t match the types of jobs that are here, open and growing.”

The increasing emphasis on more advanced skills raises policy questions about how to help low-skilled job seekers who are being turned away at the factory door and increasingly becoming the long-term unemployed. This week, the Senate reconsidered but declined to extend unemployment benefits, after earlier extensions raised the maximum to 99 weeks.

The Obama administration has advocated further stimulus measures, which the Senate rejected, and has allocated more money for training. Still, officials say more robust job creation is the real solution.

But a number of manufacturers say that even if demand surges, they will never bring back many of the lower-skilled jobs, and that training is not yet delivering the skilled employees they need.


All candidates at Ben Venue must pass a basic skills test showing they can read and understand math at a ninth-grade level. A significant portion of recent applicants failed, and the company has been disappointed by the quality of graduates from local training programs. It is now struggling to fill 100 positions.

If schools are not graduating studients who can read and understand math, that's a problem that has to be addressed first -- and not just by testing. What's going on in the homes? Are there changes in the way we need to teach? Second of all, if "local training programs" -- places like so-called tech schools that charge tens of thousands of dollars for skills courses for skills that are not used by employers, then perhaps companies need to set up training programs for the skills they need. If they don't want to commit to permanance for employees-in-training, then do some aptitude testing, create short-term apprenticeships followed by permanent employment for those who pass. I don't doubt for one minute that at least a good part of the workforce applying for these jobs CAN learn what they need to do. But these companies have to start returning to the days when they invested in their employees, rather than treating them as just so much expendable chaff.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...
I have to feel for those who have trouble with 9th-grade math. As someone who has had to help his son with his math homework all the way through school, culminating in this past year's pre-calc, I'm grateful he's not taking math in 12th grade. Even in his 9th-grade homework there were stumpers for me.

As a computer programmer for the past 30 years (now on disability), I've watched as companies have pushed training responsbilities onto the colleges. (And, the Educational Testing Service, seeing a money-making opportunity, has pushed college courses into high school.) If you've ever read Joel Sposky, one memorable quote from him was that he would hire a CS graduate from MIT sight unseen over a graduate from any other high-ranked university because MIT doesn't teach to the latest buzzwords in the computer industry.

As to retraining in general, as you said, what happened to on-the-job training? And for people on unemployment or low incomes (like me), how do you afford retraining costs? And who can guarantee there will still be jobs open in the field after you finish retraining?

- Alex

P.S. Enjoy your blog every day - at breakfast, of course!

Anonymous tata said...
Jill, let's call this what it is. It's not news. It's nothing more than a plot point, designed to reinforce the impression that the economic situation *simply can't be fixed.* It's too much! We're supposed to accept that our only option is belt-tightening and the squeezing of the poor.

So let's call this song and dance what it is: That's Propaganda!

And when you see it that way, a whole lot of other news stories look less like news and more like coersion than ever before. Feel free to sing out when you see it.

Anonymous Charlie O said...
Good post. I've felt this for many years. Too many employers (especially in IT) seem to want 100% exact matches for skill sets and/or experience. They don't seem to give any credit to prospective hires that that certain experiences that resembles the requirements make it possible for this person to come along quickly. And forget about dealing with headhunters and/or recruiters. Half of them have no idea what the skills or technologies are that they are advertising. And the Indians getting into the game are the worst. Sorry if that sounds racist, but it comes from experience.

Anonymous CC said...
Shift the responsibility of training for the new high-tech jobs onto someone else - even if the outside training won't quite match what your company specifically wants. That's how you cut costs.

Who says socialism doesn't work?