by David Safier
Word to the wise: Take every company's complaint about how unskilled its workforce is with a grain of salt. Every boss wants workers who are highly skilled, motivated, obedient and willing to work for peanuts. When that doesn't happen, they blame it on someone else, usually the schools.
Today's NY Times has a story about high tech companies setting up in Ireland having trouble finding skilled workers, even though the unemployment rate is high. The story says they have to import workers from other countries to fill the positions.
Remember those recent international tests — PISA — where the U.S. ranked low, proving our workforce isn't educated enough for the 21st century? Well, Ireland scored 16 places above us, so they should have no problem finding skilled employees if it's all about how well students score on the tests. Apparently factors other than test scores are in play.
The article doesn't say what countries the imported workers come from, which leaves out an important part of the story. Either the reporter didn't do her job, or the companies complaining about a lack of skilled workers aren't saying where they went to find workers. Could many of them come from eastern Europe or other countries where the workers are used to low wages and poor working conditions? Could it be as much about what companies are willing to pay as the Irish workers' lack of skills?
U.S. companies complain they can't find enough skilled employees. Often, the reason is they're not willing to obey the law of supply and demand, which says when the supply is low, the price of goods and services goes up. We're graduating more people from college with the necessary skills than we have jobs for, and there are plenty of recently unemployed people who have the skills needed to fill the jobs if they're given a bit of training. But businesses have decided to keep wages low and play a waiting game. Qualified people have the choice of taking low-skilled wages for high-skilled work or searching for positions with higher salaries. A significant number of them decide to wait for better opportunities. Sometimes they would have to move to find poor paying jobs demanding high skills. What's the incentive to relocate when the pay is low and many of those jobs will be obsolete in a decade?
Back to the story about Ireland's problem finding skilled labor. It talks about one guy who used to work in the hotel industry until it collapsed when the real estate bubble burst. He decided to get some training to move into more technical work. He toiled as an intern for six months, then was lucky enough to land a job managing a data center. His salary? $40,000, about what he made before as a hotel manager. What would have happened if the data center advertised that job at $60,000? I'm guessing they'd have a line of prospective employees stretching out the door, half of them with strong resumes in their hands and needing virtually no training.
Schools make a great scapegoat for businesses, and businesses have been whipping the goat hard for decades. It's easy to justify low wages if you say your workers don't have the necessary literacy or work habits to do the job because of our failing schools. Wages have stayed stagnant since the 1970s while productivity has grown and the top 5% have seen their incomes soar. The workers haven't reaped the benefits of a growing economy because, according to business, they're not worth it. It's a good story, and unfortunately, too many people swallow it whole.