AUSTIN, Texas-One of the most common refrains of the current jobs recovery is that there is a skills gap – that firms have plenty of open jobs but can't find qualified applicants to fill them. But employers and the government differ on exactly how bad that gap is, and who is responsible.
Employers are seeking workers that have basic technical and math skills, says Sajan Pillai, CEO of IT company UST Global, but the requirements are much broader than the ability to code in HTML or do calculus. Rather, he told an audience at the U.S. News 2013 STEM Conference, employers need employees that are both STEM-capable but also "digitally confident" and fast learners, to keep up with technology.
"The lifetime of skills is so short today," he said.
In areas like advanced manufacturing, employers say those skills are increasingly hard to find. However, Acting Secretary of Labor Seth Harris cast doubt on the severity of the skills gap. He said that the gap may not be as "acute" as some firms make it out to be, as wages are not skyrocketing for STEM jobs, and positions aren't going unfilled for years at a time.
However, Michael Araten, president and CEO of construction toy company K'NEX Brands, pushed back, saying that companies can simply look outside the U.S. for talent.
"The issue is that companies solve the problem because they can tap the world for talent and fill those needs," said Araten. "The reason we're not seeing wage inflation largely is because we're in a global war for jobs."
Araten added that while seeking workers overseas is keeping those labor costs from skyrocketing, it also means less economic growth for the U.S. and more for foreign competitors.
However large the skills gap is, there is also disagreement over who exactly can fix the problem, and how. Araten talked about the need for better STEM education but also the need for an adjustment of student preferences – while college students often want to study the liberal arts, he said students should now aspire to study the "liberal sciences," getting a firm grounding in science and technology areas.
Harris, however, said that employers need to take some of the educational responsibility. When he hears employers complain of months-old job openings, Harris said he responds by asking, "Have you sat down with the local school district?" Harris said he believes employers need to "put some skin in the game" by talking to local grade schools, community colleges, and universities about what skills they need.
"If you haven't done those things, my answer is you don't have a skill shortage; you have a creativity shortage," he added.
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