Great article in the Atlantic by Barbara Kiviac entitled “The Big Jobs Myth: American Workers Aren’t Ready for American Jobs.”
Americans seem to have a deep hunger to regard one’s economic situation as a morality play. If you’re rich, it’s because of your drive and skill. If you’re poor, it’s because you’re dumb and lazy. This allows us to complacently let the rich stay rich and absolves us of any duty to the poor.
Kiviac goes into more detail, but this dynamic is part of what makes the jobs/skills myth so popular. She also notes that, strangely, the problem with the labor market is rarely descried as a pay mismatch. Want the skills? Pay for them. Individuals don’t acquire such skills for free.
Except the ones they do. She notes that a couple of the skills noted as lacking in employer surveys aren’t really the kinds that come from more education — particularly the types of education marketed as getting you a job:
A 2011 employer survey from the Manufacturing Institute found that the top skill deficiency among manufacturing workers was “inadequate problem-solving skills.” No. 3 on the list was “inadequate basic employability skills (attendance timeliness, work ethic, etc.).
In any case, she says, the skills mismatch trope serves many ideological masters:
As sociologist Michael Handel points out in his book Worker Skills and Job Requirements, in the skills mismatch debate, it is often not clear who is missing what skill. The term is used to talk about technical manufacturing know-how, doctoral-grade engineering talent, high-school level knowledge of reading and math, interpersonal smoothness, facility with personal computers, college credentials, problem-solving ability, and more. Depending on the conversation, the problem lies with high-school graduates, high-school drop-outs, college graduates without the right majors, college graduates without the right experience, new entrants to the labor force, older workers, or younger workers. Since the problem is hazily defined, people with vastly different agendas are able to get in on the conversation–and the solution.
The skills mismatch trope also offers a little something for everyone politically. Those on the right get to talk about taking personal responsibility for upgrading one’s skills, while those on the left get to emphasize how we must do a better job with education, that great pathway to an egalitarian society. Between the two sit the nation’s employers, who get an argument for sharing labor-training costs with government agencies, non-profits, and institutions of higher education; it would hardly be fair to expect them to bear the full burden if the American workforce itself is defective. Finally, a fast-growing industry of for-profit colleges get reassurance that their student pipeline will stay full.