Monday, June 04, 2012

Fitting to Work

As unemployment remains remarkably high in the United States -- over 8 percent officially and 14 percent if we use the measures that were in place before President Reagan changed the measuring stick in order to get better-looking measurements -- Renee Montagne's interview with David Wessel is especially timely. Even though he is an economist, and a Wall Street Journal economist at that, Wessel offers some very interesting insights into the problems facing job seekers.

The full interview is well worth a listen, as it examines unemployment in terms of factors that are more nuanced than the broad considerations of macroeconomic factors and business confidence. Of a handful of hypotheses he explores, I find two particularly interesting.

First, it appears that software is a big part of the problem. Wessel describes both anecdotal and experimmental evidence that potentially qualified applicants cannot make it through the filters commonly used in many hiring departments. In one extreme case, a human-resources executive found that his own resume would not have made it through the filters to get hired for his own job. Wessel does not connect this to recent waves of downsizing, but of course the reliance on software has increased at the expense of human resources officers who were, well, human.

Webb Machinery
Second, because of decreasing employee loyalty -- which of course results from post-Reagan erosion of employer loyalty -- employers are reluctant to train new hires. Where someone 90 percent capable of doing a job in the past would have received that last measure of training on the job, employers are now hoping to find people ready to walk through the door with exactly the right skills to do the job.

Wessel suggests that they increasingly expect schools to do this training work and unfortunately, some political leaders are all-too eager  to accommodate these unrealistic and unsustainable demands. The demands are unrealistic because they confuse training (which is specific) with education (which is more general). Even fairly specialized education does not and should not emphasize particular tools, systems, or software versions. Shifting too much of the training burden to schools is also not sustainable, as anti-government activists push politicians to limit support for education at all levels, and so-called education reformers dilute the actual education with rote test preparation.

As Wessel does suggest in the interview, employers and government -- and potential employees -- can use this information to close the apparent gap between what employers demand and what employees have to offer.

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