There is a paradox regarding US job growth. Unemployment is on the decline, yet employers commonly report hiring challenges for skilled labor and other roles. Many college graduates are only working part-time jobs outside their area of study. With talk of bringing skilled labor jobs back home and renegotiating foreign trade deals, the question must be asked: will the US labor market be able to meet this rising demand?

The Paradox

Recently, unemployment reached 4.7% in the US, a level many say is approaching “full employment.” The number of job postings hit record highs, yet 17 million Americans are seeking full-time employment. Yes, the number of job postings is rising, but so too is the length of time those jobs remain unfilled. Employers report that job applicants are increasingly underqualified or lack experience for skilled positions such as engineers, mathematicians, occupational therapists, and manufacturing laborers.

Yet many place the blame on foreign countries and the trend towards globalization. There is a strain of thought that believes much of our economic trouble comes from a lack of jobs. Advocates for this school of thought believe that renegotiating trade deals and bringing more manufacturing jobs back to the states will result in better US job growth and thus a more vibrant economy.

But the question few are asking is: where are the skilled laborers to fill these jobs? Why is US labor productivity declining? Why are job listings going unfilled? Will US job growth automatically fix the employment problems in this country?

The Causes

Experts have yet to reach a consensus on what is primarily driving this gap in US job growth and skilled labor to fill these jobs. There are many factors contributing to the oncoming labor shortage in the US.

  • Baby Boomers are retiring from their jobs at a rapid pace, leaving behind a huge demand for the kind of skilled labor that generation was trained for.
  • Educational institutions overwhelmingly believe they are providing young people with training relevant to the jobs industry demands – yet employers overwhelmingly disagree.
  • US employers often raise qualification expectations higher than is necessary. One example is that most job listings for an executive secretary require a 4-year degree, yet only 19% of current executive secretaries have one, according to Joseph Fuller, a Harvard Business School professor.

US Job Growth or Skilled Labor Growth?

The skills gap is a sensitive and complex issue that needs to be addressed. Without a growing supply of skilled labor to meet the already rising demand in this country, bringing more skilled labor jobs back to the US will only exacerbate the problem facing employers today. While employers want highly experienced and trained labor, the domestic market is under-providing. In the interest of remaining competitive and filling this demand for skilled labor, many executives are facing tough decisions regarding automation, outsourcing, and salary levels.

Perhaps it is time for a shift in the dialogue. Perhaps US job growth is only part of the equation we should consider. Unemployment numbers are not the only measure of a vibrant jobs market. Steps should be taken to better match US labor skills with those jobs. A renewed focus on vocational training and academic cooperation with industry, combined with realistic expectations and common-sense international partnerships just might provide the way forward.

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