'Skills Gap' Leaves Firms Without Worker Pipeline

Skills Gap By Erika Niedowski

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- John Russo's chemical lab in North Kingstown has been growing in recent years, even despite a deflated economy, and he expects to add another 15 to 20 positions to his 49 employees over the next year.

But the president of Ultra Scientific Analytical Solutions has found himself in a vexing spot, struggling to fill openings that require specialized training in a state where the jobless rate is close to 11 percent, the third-highest in the nation.

"It's very difficult to find the right person, and there's all walks of life trying to find jobs. I honestly think there's a large swath of unemployable," said Russo, whose firm manufactures and supplies analytical standards. "They don't have any skills at all."

He's talking about the so-called skills gap, a national problem that has left businesses without a crucial pipeline of the skilled workers they need in a rapidly changing economy.

States from Rhode Island to Washington are taking steps to address the gulf. Michigan launched a "No Worker Left Behind" initiative, allowing unemployed or low-wage workers to get up to $10,000 in free tuition for community college study or other training. Several legislatures passed bills creating "lifelong learning accounts," which, like a 401(k), help workers save for education, training or apprenticeships. The Aspen Institute is spearheading a national campaign that aims to do something that hasn't happened nearly enough: get community colleges and employers talking.

The need for such efforts, experts say, is enormous.

In a major report in February, Harvard University highlighted what it called the "forgotten half" of young adults who are unprepared to enter the workforce. Some drop out of high school. Some who finish can't afford college. And some who can afford it find that what they've learned in college or vocational programs doesn't match employers' demands.

"Our system for preparing young adults is broken," said William Symonds, director of the Pathways to Prosperity Project at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. "We're not saying that the system is failing everybody, but it is leaving a lot of young people behind."

Educators and business leaders say that a "college for all" mentality is no longer realistic, if ever it was. Many positions -- known as "middle-skill" jobs -- don't require a degree from a four-year institution. The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that there will be 47 million job openings in the decade ending in 2018. Nearly half will require only an associate's degree.

Career and technical education programs, once derided as being for those who couldn't cut it academically, offer one path. But growing those programs has not been a national priority and their quality is inconsistent at best. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has called career and technical education the "neglected stepchild" of education reform.

U.S. Rep. James Langevin, D-R.I., who co-chairs the bipartisan Career and Technical Education Caucus in Congress, wants to change that. He has pushed to expand federal funding for such programs so they can access state-of-the-art technology and equipment. He notes that Perkins Act funding has remained stagnant over the last decade, even though demand for career and technical education programs has increased. The funding was cut in the current fiscal year.

The caucus co-chairman, U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., points to the story of Tricia Reich, 18, who graduated this month from the Central Pennsylvania Institute of Science and Technology. The school trains students in everything from heavy equipment operation and dental assisting to building construction and landscape design.

In the automotive technology program, Reich learned everything there is to know about how a car works. She spent her third and final year not in the classroom but working at an auto dealership, at first earning $8 an hour as a service writer. She's now employed at another dealership that sells and services Mercedes, Volvos and Audis, saving money in hopes of attending community college.

Reich said that programs like hers give students "a leg up" once they get in the real world. "It's definitely a big plus," she said.

Rhode Island has been hit harder by the recession than many states, undergoing a difficult transition from an economy historically made up of low-tech, low-skill manufacturing and service jobs to a "knowledge" economy centered on IT, bioscience and health care, and other such fields.

Take the old Jewelry District in downtown Providence. It's been rebranded the Knowledge District, envisioned as a life sciences hub. But fulfilling that vision is years off.

Keith Stokes, executive director of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corp., notes that the 19-acre parcel is a stone's throw from south Providence, home to the kind of lower-income, minority population that's been disproportionately affected by the skills gap. But it might as well be "on the other side of the Grand Canyon," Stokes said.

"We held on too long to these low-wage, low-skill industries, and we didn't make the strategic long-term investments in education," he said. "We're playing a bit of catch-up. It's critical for us to be able to catch up and accelerate."

Part of the problem is the dropout rate. In Rhode Island, for every 100 students who start high school, only 73 will graduate, according to Ray DiPasquale, president of the Community College of Rhode Island. That puts the state slightly above the national average of about 72 percent.

But of those 73 who graduate in Rhode Island, 40 will enter college. And of that number, just 21 earn a degree.

At CCRI, the on-time graduation rate is only 9.8 percent, in part because the vast majority of its nearly 18,000 students require remedial coursework. The national rate is 15 percent.

The skills gap is already taking an economic toll. Some businesses spend tens of thousands of dollars to "skill up" new employees. Leaving positions unfilled is hardly better. Understaffed firms, particularly small ones, can't deliver goods as fast as they need to or take on new customers.

The problem is likely to become even more acute as the economy picks up.

"If we don't address this skills problem, American businesses will lack the world-class workforce needed to compete at a global level, and many Americans will remain out of work, instead of accessing the high quality jobs of today and tomorrow," said Penny Pritzker, a Chicago business executive who is advisory board chair of the Aspen Institute's skills gap campaign.

It took Ultra Scientific's Russo more than half a year to fill one of those jobs. Until recently, he couldn't find anyone to operate a specialized piece of equipment that performs high-pressure liquid chromatography, a technique that separates compounds in a solution.

But his firm's gain represents an economic loss to the state: The Ph.D. whom Russo is hiring is coming from Thermo Fisher Scientific, which is shuttering its manufacturing facility in east Providence.

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America has generations of people with no skills at all. I think about four decades ago, when we decided that teachers had no rights, and the children had all the rights changed the level of employable for decades to come. That with the desintegration of the family, has left America a third world country when it comes to skilled labor. I have several employees in their twenties with the skill level of a fourth grader, no desire to improve themselves (even if they could), and feel they are entitled to a pay check. I thank God I only have five years left before retirement.

July 05 2011 at 2:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Sorry to hear this, if you moved your company to Colorado you could fill it imediately. Second there is pleanty of skilled workers looking and there arn't any JOBS. Might be his company is missplanted! Do You think!!!!

July 05 2011 at 2:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Hi .. my turn Iselin007 seems still to be in the 007 area, to a long time ago ,replaced fantasy island..
interesting would be know what job ( employment qualification Iselin007 has to offer to the economy
has to offer. He/she feel that being an US Citizen by birth is all what is needed to " live the american
dream" Iselin007 feels that if there is a opening for employment. regardless of industry the position should be his ..." the american born citizen" the job should be be designed to Iselin007 skill level
etc. etc. ... Iselin007 must have history class in elementary school... he should know that a blue blooded US Citizen knows that that " foreign born Generals " trained Georg Washington's armee and prevented the defeat of his army .. sure, Iselin007 knows everything there is to know about the 4th of July.. meaning " hot dogs, hamburgers and budwieser .... " it apparent that Iselin007 is missing the point of this article., ..... sad

July 05 2011 at 2:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mike Keefer

They would not have a skill gap it they were willing to hire people in their 50s and 60s.
So, they don't have the energy of kids. Hire two of them part time.

July 05 2011 at 2:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I guess the "trickle down" economy never trickled. You think with all the tax cuts corporations get they would offer some kind of apprentice programs. Everybody who ever worked was at one time a beginner. Why is it any different today. Companies complain that there isn't any good workers. I agree that good help is hard to find but you know what, there are a lot of bad employers too. There needs to be a balance between employer and employee..a certain respect, a certain appreciation on both sides. Any one sided relationship of any kind will eventually fail. Don't be afraid to invest in your employees. Sure weed out the bad ones but don't be to cheap to reward your good ones. The solutions to some of our biggest problems have such simple remedies, but everyone's heads are so far up their own butts they can't see.

July 05 2011 at 2:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to David's comment

I totally agree, I'm 22 i have a degree in computer programming and I CAN NOT get a job. no one will give me the chance to prove myself. its very discouraging when you don't even get a call back saying the position was filled by someone else.

Sure i may not have the experience of a 50 year old, or even a 30 year old.. but HOW can i get that experience, that work ethic if i cant even get a job at the local five and dime as a stock girl? it makes NO sense.

July 05 2011 at 6:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to yeltrikjr13's comment

Internships for college students are availiable through many campus academic counseling departments.

July 22 2011 at 9:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down

This article is symptomatic of the problems faced by the unemployed today -- NO ONE is willing to take a small risk by hiring someone who doesn't exactly meet all of the job criteria at half pay for 30 days, seeing if they can add on to their present skills in that time, and hiring them at the full pay rate after that when they prove themselves. Instead, the morons who run HR departments only look to see if a particular resume will fit all of the checkmarks for a position when that resume is run through the meat grinder of a word-recognition computer system. HR is just too lazy to think any ther way. Sickening, and this will not lead to a decrease in the unemployment rate in the near future.

July 05 2011 at 2:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Obama has totally removed the possibility of closing the 'Gap' by paying our non working population to stay unemployed. He spent most of our money 'saving jobs' or paying government workers to stay employed even though they were no longer needed. That covers up the real unemployment percentage. Where's the incentive to improve yourself if you can keep drawing money from the government without ever trying to improve yourself. It draws competent people from other countries to fill those positions while our people are all happily sitting at home watching Opra or other soaps.

July 05 2011 at 2:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to halhobbs's comment

If I hadn't been unemployed for 1-1/2 years, I would probably agree with you. As it stands right now, I will probably get my measly unemployment pay until next year. It helps, but it doesn't pay much. Most people can't live on unemployment. My life has been completely disrupted and I've gone through my retirement savings. I took the training offered by our state - they spent $2,500 so I could get a certificate for office accounting. But I am 58 years old and EVERYBODY wants people with experience. In a good economy, I would have a chance. And I am NOT happily sitting around watching soaps or anything else. It is not fun having bill collectors calling at all hours of the day. It's not fun having $9.00 in your checking account. I have worked my whole adult life. I am not having fun.

July 05 2011 at 2:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Here's a solution that existed once upon a time: Companies actually trained their own employees via apprenticeship programs and, if the company was large enough and in need of enough such skills, they'd partner with a local technical school to offer those classes to their employees. They did not expect the school systems to churn out students ready-made for them.

My uncle became a master skilled machinist that way. He left technical school with basic math and machine skills. He was then hired into a company as an apprentice.... to do the very specialized machine tooling that that company needed.

I have a friend who was in human resources. She had several openings that were open for years.... because there was no way any single person was going to have the prior schooling and experience that that company wanted... and despite her attempts to convince the CEO, the company refused to hire someone with part of the requirements and train them for the rest. It was cutting of their nose to spite their face. When I last heard, those positions had been open for 7 years. Does this make sense?

July 05 2011 at 1:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

When you have an Education system being run by the Government and Big Labor Unions who cover for Morons that where Educated by Big Unions and Government Hacks. You get What you get.

July 05 2011 at 1:26 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Cas's comment

I work as a UA utilityfitter/plumber-I take offense to your lies CAS, likely you never been to a UA training shop least an Local of any Union to find out.

July 05 2011 at 1:45 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

According to the right wing in the country, education isn't "cool". In other countries, education is priority and we also have this generation (and the last) who grew up thinking they could go right out of high school to the American Dream. It is THOSE jobs that are drying up. Also Americans think it's beneath them to take low paying jobs, so employers look to undocumented aliens to fill them. No one owes anyone a living - young people need to be trained in how to set goals, sacrifice and work towards them. I've been working for the past 35 years straight, and don't own any of the gadgets that even lower income families have today.

July 05 2011 at 1:06 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Ramona's comment

What right wingers are you talking about that say education "isn't cool"? Can you give me some examples? I respect that fact that you've worked for many years, as have I, but If you don't own any of the gadgets that lower income families have, how did they afford them? Bad spending choices, so when they get ready to retire they will have no money? I completely agree that no one owes anyone a living. That sounds very right wing. The educational institutions in this country are completely controlled by the left wing, budgets are almost uniformly equal or higher than other advanced countries, and for whatever reason, we are not getting our money's worth. I'd really like to understand the first sentence of your post. By the way, the correct term is "illegal alien", not undocumented.

July 05 2011 at 1:54 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Undocumented aliens don't generally earn minimum wage or receive health insurance. Most citizens won't work for less than min wage or benefits if they don't have too. We could go back to the days of child labor and unfair labor practices, since it seems that many corporations wouldn't blink. They'd tell their constituents that if they work hard they too could one day be wealthy...

July 05 2011 at 2:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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