The Skills Mismatch Unemployment Myth

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.


    • says

      I wonder if the work ethic is an actual problem or just one of those “kids these days and their rock and roll music” kind of problems. Every generation pretty much says that every subsequent generation is lazier than they were. As if we’ve been in decline since we got kicked out of Eden. So, I’m skeptical when employers say such things too.

      As to the skills, I’m no expert, so I don’t know. If there is a checklist of programming languages or software programs or particular things these employers need but can’t get, even if they’re willing to pay for it, then I’m sympathetic. If it’s fuzzy hand waving, mentioning skills like “problem solving skills” and their paying minimum wage and their just putting out a classified ad and doing nothing more in terms of recruitment, then I’m less so.

    • Bradley says


      I think I’ve heard the terms “lack of skills” and “lack of work ethic” from a loyal Republican before. Former DWD Commissioner Mark Everson once told the Unemployment Insurance Board the same thing — that he’s wandered the state talking with employers, and they basically said the workforce is lacking work ethic and skills. Everson said the lack of work ethic is due to a lack of what he called “soft skills”, or the basics such as showing-up on time, obeying bosses, etc.

      Anyone who knows the good commissioner knows he had little bit of a problem with “soft skills” (I jokingly later said I don’t think it was a soft skill) during his tenure as President of the American Red Cross when he impregnated a subordinate during an extramarital affair and was subsequently fired. But it’s those darned kids who are late a couple minutes to work or who have that “poor work ethic” who are the real problems. Everson of course went on to become the Department of Administration’s and DWD’s commissioners (making handsome money) with the help of his old boss, Mitch Daniels, right after he lost his Red Cross job.

      Doug, your skepticism is about where mine is. If it were so true, then the leaders of our businesses would be showing the way. Everson showed it’s ok to sleep with a subordinate, have a baby with her, and still get a job with the help of your politically-connected friend down the line. There’s standards for people like him, and there are standards for everyone else.

  1. varangianguard says

    Hmmpf. I’ve been working around Indiana long enough to know that “employers” are often lacking in “job skills” as much as their erstwhile employees. And, in my experience, I have found that employers never hire based on “work ethic”, so they ought to just quit whining about that one. Plus, don’t start me on the “critical thinking” and “problem solving”…

    If employers want a certain type of employee, they have to work for it. Provide solid expectations; train, train, train; provide a fair wage in a decent work environment; lead from the front. After all that, if an employee walks, there is a reason for it – caused by the employer. They need to quit expecting “good” employees to be handed over to them for free. What is this, an “employer welfare state”?

  2. Carlito Brigante says

    Doug, good point. When you have heard the same complaint from eveyone is this side of the patriarchs, you have to discount it.

    This article deserves two or three reads.

    I talk to a lot of small manufacturers and home builders

    I take what they say with some skepticism, but to a person, they like to hire hispanic workers. They cite their work ethic, their attendance, their family orientation (I guess this correlates to work ethic and arttendance). And the guys they are hiring usually are not illegals. Most of them are from south Texas and moved north for better work opportunities.

    A little off topic, but it is often said that the South lost the Civil War but one the peace.

    I am sure President Polk and the southern Democrats never envisioned that when they took the southwest and California there would be a majority Hispanic nation in 200 years.

  3. Carlito Brigante says

    This quote was very telling. It tells me that American employers may be so acclimated to paying low wages that they are cognitively unable to address the issue of lack of candidates.

    The Manpower survey also suggests another possibility. When firms were asked why they have difficulty hiring, 55% picked “lack of available applicants,” but essentially the same percentage, 54%, said candidates are “looking for more pay than is offered” (many more than the 40% selecting lack of “hard” skill). This is an important reminder that the labor market is a market. The U.S. conversation revolves around whether workers have the right skills. Whether firms are willing to pay enough to compensate workers for having acquired those skills is rarely mentioned. When firms post job openings at a certain wage and no one comes forward, we call this a skills mismatch. In a different universe, we might call it a pay mismatch.

    • Paul C. says

      Your comment above regarding salary may be accurate, but it ignores the idea of productivity. If an employer believes that an employee will be productive over the higher cost to train/employ them, they will pay that higher wage. But in today’s environment of outsourcing (this is a symptom of the global market) and high unemployment, there are cheaper options out there.

      • Carlito Brigante says

        Productivity gains have been growing about about 3% a year. It falls early in a recession befor the layoffs happen, and then increases when workers are laid off and more work falls on the survivors. So we are at a very sweet spot on the productivity curve.

        You are correct that there are cheaper labor options out there. But when employers post jobs and get few applicants, they have rejected that option.

        When an employer posts a position, they have determine that there are now cheaper options. Employers use compensation strategists to develop salaries and benefit packages for candidate recruitment. These strategists may have miscalculated.

        The employers could call it a skills mismatch (we want to pay .8X for the skills we are requesting.) But if the market demands X, it will be X or Bangalore.

  4. Johnny from Badger Grove says

    The thing that gets me is this “personal Development” of “Skills Development” that a lot of employers expect from their workers.

    You want me to pick up additional training that will increase your income, yet you expect me to pay for it out of my own pocket, and you are not going to increase my compensation because I have increased your profitability.

    Hell, yes, I’m going to start shopping myself around. Go ahead and whine to your Rotary club about “disloyal workers with no work ethic”…


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