Surveys Find Employers Have Too Few and Too Many Qualified Workers

American workers are either too smart or not smart enough for available jobs.

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American workers are overeducated and underskilled. That's the lesson from two new surveys that shed light on this contradiction at the center of the American job crisis.

The first is a survey from jobs site CareerBuilder showing that nearly one-third of employers say they are hiring more employees with college degrees for positions that were in the past chiefly held by high school graduates. In some fields, that share is much higher: 38 percent of manufacturers, 40 percent of healthcare employers, and 53 percent of financial services firms report hiring college graduates for formerly high-school-level work.

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"We're talking to these organizations, and what they're saying is the company is raising their performance expectations for all their roles." says Rosemary Haefner, global vice president of human resources for CareerBuilder. She adds that companies are essentially saying to themselves, "since there is more talent on the market, we are going to raise the standards."

A glut of college graduates makes it seem like employers have a surplus of really smart, well-rounded applicants to fill their empty positions. Only they don't. A recent survey from the Society for Human Resource Management shows that 66 percent of firms that are hiring are having trouble finding workers for specific positions. That's a significant bump from 2011, when it was just 52 percent.

The positions that employers are having trouble filling are the usual suspects from the STEM fields that are often cited in discussions of skills gaps. More than 80 percent of employers looking for scientists, engineers, high-skilled technical workers like programmers, and high-skilled medical workers reported having a difficulty hiring people into those positions.

Neither of these trends is new, but it bears repeating as the nation continues to watch for improvement in the job market: there is no such thing as "the job market." There are different markets in different fields, and they mean that a 7.7 percent unemployment rate is either very scary or relatively meaningless to a given applicant.

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The SHRM survey and plenty of other evidence suggest that workers with STEM skills, for example, will pursue—and be pursued by—employers who need their specialized skills. Knowing HTML or how to operate complicated manufacturing equipment means a better job outlook, as those skills are in high demand.

Workers with skills that are not in high demand, meanwhile, might end up underemployed, in positions that do not fully use their skills. And even as the unemployment rate improves, that may not translate into a parallel improvement for those workers without in-demand skills.

Still, employers say they've gained significantly from putting college graduates into historically high-school-graduate-level positions. According to the CareerBuilder survey, 64 percent reported a higher quality of work, 45 percent reported higher productivity, and 22 percent reported greater revenue.

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That means that even college educated workers who do not have in-demand skills, for example, still bring added value to employers. In short, education pays off, says one expert. But it pays off to a greater degree depending on what you learn—particularly if it's in a math or science field.

"The education system does do quite a bit in terms of preparing the types of professionals that we need," says Alexander Alonso, SHRM's director for thought leadership. "The bigger issue in my mind is how do we get folks to take on those majors?"

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