The subject of a possible skills gap continues to be a relevant topic given that many companies note they have difficulty hiring skilled workers. For example, more than 65 percent of the respondents to a survey conducted by MHI—an international trade association that represents the material handling, logistics and supply chain industry—and Deloitte Consulting LLP indicated that process, technology and skillset gaps exist within their company.


However, as Matthew Philips recently noted in an article on BusinessWeek, there are now 4.7 million job openings in the U.S., and some 9.7 million people looking for work. That leads to the question: How can there be so many unemployed people in the face of so many job openings?


Something is clearly broken in the labor market, and it may not be that workers lack skills, but that employers’ expectations are out of whack, Philips writes. As he explains, that is the premise of a paper by Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the Wharton School, titled “Skill Gaps, Skill Shortages and Skill Mismatches: Evidence for the U.S.”


Part of the problem is that over the course of the past 20 to 30 years, on-the-job training has declined—if not been eliminated. Companies instead, expect new hires to begin working immediately.


At the same time though, the changing nature of work itself has also encouraged more frequent job changes. When jobs required unique and specific skills, it was more difficult for a worker to translate their experience into a new environment. The growing use of technology has, consequently, made some skills far less specific, which in turn, makes it easier to switch jobs.


So given that employees may switch jobs frequently, it’s understandable that some companies may reduce workforce training because they figure it will be difficult to see returns on that training investment. The end result is that a growing number of companies place an emphasis on hiring skilled workers—who have been trained somewhere else and already know how to do a particular job.


In the meantime, companies continue to have difficulty locating workers with those specific skillsets, unemployment seems stuck at just under 10 million, and the U.S. economy suffers. In his paper, Cappelli writes that to make a difference in the broader economy, businesses need to bear more of the burden in training workers and give them the valued experience, Philips explains in BusinessWeek.


“If employers would only do what they did 30 years ago, we wouldn’t have this problem,” Cappelli says.


That’s not to say all companies have given up on training. Hypertherm, a manufacturer of plasma, laser, and waterjet cutting systems, struggled for years to find the skilled workers it needed to operate the advanced CNC machines used in its plants. To address this need for skilled employees, the company opened its own training center. The immersion-styled education program teaches people who have a good attitude and an aptitude to learn to be skilled machinists in just nine weeks. What I find most intriguing is that students accepted into the program are guaranteed jobs at Hypertherm and paid full wages during training. This allows people who may not have otherwise been able to go through such a program because they couldn’t afford to go nine weeks without a paycheck, to participate.


What are your thoughts on skillsets and workforce training? Do you think there really is a skills gap, are manufacturers’ expectations too high or, perhaps, both?