Mismatch Between Jobs, Job Seekers Contributes to Unemployment

… More seek training, but career changes don’t always go smoothly …

baltimoresun.com

By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun

April 17, 2011

Maryland has 210,000 unemployed residents searching for work. Maryland employers have 70,000 job openings they’re trying to fill. The unemployment rate would drop overnight, state officials say, if many of the jobless people had the skills needed to fill those empty positions.

Unfortunately, it’s not working out nearly that neatly.

Economic shifts — some potentially temporary, some permanent — have stranded an increasing number of unemployed workers in job limbo because their skills don’t match up with employer demand.

Steady growth in health care jobs, for example, does little good for the thousands of manufacturing workers thrown onto the unemployment rolls. Adults with no education past high school are finding that their options, long on the decline, have shriveled even more in the past few years. And many jobs coming to the state as part of the nationwide military base reshuffling aren’t open to workers without security clearances, no matter how well educated they are.

Larry Boyd, 42, knows what it’s like to be in a shrinking industry. He’s trying to make the leap to a growing one by going back to school.

“I’ve been laid off three times in three years,” said the Arnold man, who worked in construction-material sales — a rough field since the housing bubble popped. After the last layoff, in December, he began studying hospitality management: “It’s time to make a change.”

The biggest contributor to high unemployment rates across the country is — of course — the fact that there simply isn’t enough work to go around. U.S. job seekers outnumber job openings by a ratio of more than 4-to-1. Nearly half the unemployed have been out of work for more than six months.

But another part of the story is the mismatch that leaves both would-be employees and employers frustrated. Even with unemployment topping 7 percent in Maryland, nearly four in 10 employers tell University of Baltimore survey-takers that they’re having trouble finding people to fill jobs — generally technical ones.

Another survey, conducted by an arm of employment services firm ManpowerGroup, found that one-quarter of Mid-Atlantic companies often find it hard to fill key positions, and many more report occasional problems.

Gov. Martin O’Malley launched a campaign last year to try to lift more workers from low-skilled to middle-skilled status. His labor secretary says job training is a key issue for Maryland, which has one of the nation’s highest shares of residents with advanced degrees but is in the middle of the pack when it comes to people with at least a high school diploma.

“That’s the No. 1 thing that I hear when I go out and talk to these companies: ‘I can’t hire the qualified, educated, technically skilled workforce that I need,'” Secretary Alexander M. Sanchez said. “There are companies that would walk in here today and say, ‘I could hire 100 people right now if they had this particular computer skill.'”

Pasadena resident Rich Losier can attest to that appetite for certain skills. The network-engineering certification courses he took after a 2009 layoff from an IT management job quickly led to freelance gigs and then to full-time work at a defense contractor. He’s still getting inquiries from employers months after he took the new job.

The training was “paramount,” said Losier, who got a grant to cover the cost through the Anne Arundel Workforce Development Corp., which runs local one-stop job centers funded by the federal government.

“It helped me reinvent myself,” he said.

Many are hoping for such a transformation. Community colleges, big providers of job training, have seen a surge of new students since the economy soured. Year-over-year enrollment in for-credit classes grew 5 percent last fall, on top of a 9 percent increase the year before.

By way of contrast, in the fall of 2007 — right before the recession began — enrollment rose by a more modest 2.6 percent.

Among the programs attracting strong interest is cybersecurity. Several community colleges offer classes to help train people for jobs at the National Security Agency and private companies. A federal grant of nearly $5 million is covering the cost of cybersecurity certification courses for unemployed and underemployed Marylanders trying to break into the burgeoning field.

Some of the career changers already have bachelor’s degrees. Such students are “very easy to get into the workforce right away,” said Kelly Koermer, dean of business, computing and technical studies at Anne Arundel Community College, which has locations near the NSA.

But jumping to a new industry can be a long and difficult affair. There’s no guarantee of success.

Clifford Austin, 52, was laid off from a manufacturing job in 2008 when his division relocated to China. Now he’s a bus driver for the city of Annapolis. Training to drive a bus wasn’t a problem — he got it done over several weekends — but landing a driving position proved tough.

“It actually took me a year and a half,” said Austin, who lives in Annapolis. “The way companies were packing up and leaving, I thought, ‘At least drivers, that’s something they’ll always need.’ But I didn’t know how hard it would be to find a job because you need the experience. And nobody was willing to give you the opportunity to get the experience.”

Austin worked a string of temporary jobs before Annapolis gave him a chance in 2009. He’s moved up the ranks from trainee to permanent employee, but he’ll need several years of raises to get back to his old salary of $17 an hour. Right now he’s making $14.52.

Still, he counts himself fortunate. He thinks he’s in a more secure place now: City bus routes can’t move to China.

“It was a hard road, but it did finally pan out,” Austin said.

For some laid-off workers, training for a different career could be their only hope of getting a paycheck again. But it’s a “fantasy” to think training is the solution to most of the country’s unemployment woes, according to University of Chicago scholar Robert J. LaLonde.

The main problem, says LaLonde, a professor of public policy who studies workforce issues, is that there just aren’t enough job openings.

“We can’t train our way out of this one,” said LaLonde, who notes that recent college graduates — the newest crop of educated people — are struggling to find full-time work.

Surveys of employers aside, it’s difficult just to measure skills-mismatch problems.

If job openings were being filled now at the same rate they were in the decade before the recession, about 5 million fewer Americans would be unemployed, said David Altig, director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. But economists can’t say exactly why. Is it because job seekers and job openings are in completely different fields? Because jobs have morphed, and now require broader skills than they did even a few years ago?

Altig said it’s also possible that employers are posting job openings not because they have a pressing need to hire but because they’re hoping to come across a “purple cow” — an unusual, exceptional candidate. If this is common, it indicates not so much a mismatch as a sluggish economy.

“It’s a bit of a mystery what’s going on,” Altig said. “It’s not clear you can just … say, ‘We’re going to provide training and solve the problem’ when we have a pretty incomplete picture about what the problem is in the first place.”

Full-fledged worker shortages could be on the horizon, though. Thank the baby boom.

The oldest boomers turn 65 this year. Many more are 62 and eligible for Social Security. The predicted retirement exodus hasn’t come to pass yet because the recession battered 401(k)s and home values — the middle-class nest eggs — but jobs will eventually go empty as boomers leave. That’s something even employers in the hard-hit manufacturing and construction sectors worry about.

“That crisis has been put off … because of this recession, but demographics are demographics. That’s still there,” said P. Michael Carey, dean of continuing education and economic development at the Community College of Baltimore County.

Only a few years ago, unemployment in the state was under 4 percent — and less than 3 percent in counties with the best job markets. Lots of employers were complaining of worker shortages. Kirkland Murray, head of the Anne Arundel Workforce Development Corp., thinks “the pendulum is going to swing back” to those days.

“That’s going to come quicker than most people think,” he said.

jamie.smith.hopkins@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun

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