Skills gap is hampering labor market

Two recent reports underscore the complexities of the flagging labor market and provide backing for more action by policymakers to help narrow the skills gap in the workforce. 

A survey from the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) and a report by Deloitte show that employers are struggling to find workers with skills that fit their openings.

With about 12.5 million unemployed workers and millions more underemployed or so discouraged they are leaving the workforce, job creation in the United States is hampered not only by supply and demand, but by a lack of highly skilled and adaptable workers whose talents don't match current job openings, according to new research from Deloitte.

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So, there is a growing push from business groups, along with the White House, to provide programs for workers to help meet the challenges of a rapidly changing job market.  

“We have reached an inflection point," said William Eggers, director of Deloitte Research.

"Individuals, firms and policymakers can no longer remain complacent about developing the U.S. talent base.

“We must refocus, re-imagine and reshape our domestic policies,” Eggers said.

An August survey found that 49 percent of business owners hired or tried to hire in the last three months and 37 percent reported few or no qualified applicants for open positions, according to the NFIB. 

“In order to maintain our global competitiveness, there is an urgent need to reassess a broad range of public policies through the talent lens rather than only narrowly focusing on education as the key to promote a highly skilled, more adaptable and a more competitive American workforce,” said John Hagel, director, Deloitte Consulting and co-chairman, Deloitte Center for the Edge, a group that conducts research for new corporate growth.

The report suggests that despite the warning signs of record high unemployment, the contraction of the job market and pressure across the globe, the United States lacks the "comprehensive policies needed to develop the most valued American commodity of all: good jobs."

"This challenge will not be resolved on its own without a significant reassessment of a broad range of public policies," the Deloitte report said. 

There is little debate that many industries are struggling to fill jobs requiring specific technical skills, even with the unemployment rate at 8.1 percent and the job market clawing for measly monthly job gains. 

The reports lend further credence to the White House's months-long efforts to acknowledge and find solutions for the growing problem.

In February, President Obama followed up with his call in the State of the Union address for a national commitment to spend $8 billion for a three-year program to train 2 million workers that would ramp up connections between businesses and community colleges to better train future workers. 

"You can choose a future where more Americans have the chance to gain the skills they need to compete, no matter how old they are or how much money they have," Obama said on Thursday night at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. 

"Education was the gateway to opportunity for me.  It was the gateway for Michelle.  It was the gateway for most of you.  And now more than ever, it is the gateway to a middle-class life," he said.

Meanwhile, some congressional Republicans have called for the elimination of job-training programs amid burgeoning federal and state deficits.  

"No company should have to look for workers overseas because they couldn’t find any with the right skills here at home.  That’s not our future," Obama said Thursday. 

The August jobs report showed that the economy added only 96,000 jobs last month, below expectations, and slower growth than previously estimated in June and July. 

"In the coming years, America will need to fill millions of good-paying mid- and high-level skilled positions in high-growth industries from healthcare to advanced manufacturing, clean energy to information technology," according to a White House fact sheet released in February. 

NFIB's chief economist William Dunkelberg said the jobs numbers reflect virtually no growth among businesses his group classifies as small, according to an economy survey set for release on Tuesday. 

"Essentially zero. That is the amount of job growth the small-business sector saw last month," he said. 

"Any serious job creation this year will have to come from large firms or new small firms created to meet the needs of millions of new consumers due to population growth. But existing small businesses are unlikely to expand before the election."

The Deloitte report suggests policy discussions should focusing on how the United States can improve the performance and quality of K-12 and higher education. 

"Reforms addressing K-12 should focus on expanding technical and vocational training and apprenticeships as an alternative pathway to highly specialized skills," the report said. 

"White and blue-collar workers must be able to continually learn and adopt new skill sets to keep up with job requirements."