Are We Short of Skilled Workers, or Is it Just a Training Problem?

© giz -
© giz -

There’s been a little debate going on in the comments here on TLNT about this post from a couple of days ago titled Starting Salaries to Rise Next Year as Talent Gets Harder to Find. And this debate, like so many others going on in these tough times, is about whether there is really a shortage of workplace talent.

Here’s what one comment had to say:

I guess we have a serious problem with our university system then if we’re graduating so many unqualified engineers and nurses to take on these so-called hard-to-fill jobs… There are many college graduates in tech fields without jobs now. Are those college grads all inherently bad? Or are companies just wanting to hire ready-made employees that require little to no training? If that’s the case, then what incentive is there to get a college degree if you’re not even considered qualified for the jobs available?”

An answer to our worker skills problem

This gets back to the ongoing debate we have going on right now. Yes, there are lots of unemployed workers who are available out there — the jobs deficit (the number of unemployed plus new workers being added) is at 11.1 million — but employers say that many of those people don’t have the right skill sets for the jobs they are looking to fill. National unemployment is at 9.1 percent, while the hardest hit states (like California) are closer to 12 percent.

Is there an answer here? Peter Cappelli says there is.

Dr. Cappelli is the George W. Taylor professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources. The week in The Wall Street Journal, he tried to answer the question Why Companies Aren’t Getting the Employees They Need.

Here’s what he had to say:

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Even with unemployment hovering around 9%, companies are grousing that they can’t find skilled workers, and filling a job can take months of hunting.

Employers are quick to lay blame. Schools aren’t giving kids the right kind of training. The government isn’t letting in enough high-skill immigrants. The list goes on and on.

But I believe that the real culprits are the employers themselves.

With an abundance of workers to choose from, employers are demanding more of job candidates than ever before. They want prospective workers to be able to fill a role right away, without any training or ramp-up time.

In other words, to get a job, you have to have that job already. It’s a Catch-22 situation for workers—and it’s hurting companies and the economy.

To get America’s job engine revving again, companies need to stop pinning so much of the blame on our nation’s education system. They need to drop the idea of finding perfect candidates and look for people who could do the job with a bit of training and practice.”

The talent shortage is an “illusion”

According to Dr. Cappelli, the talent shortage we keep hearing about is an illusion. That because some of the talent shortage complaints “boil down to the fact that employers can’t get candidates to accept jobs at the wages offered. That’s an affordability problem, not a skill shortage.” he adds:

There are plenty of people out there who could step into jobs with just a bit of training — even recent graduates who don’t have much job experience… Unfortunately, American companies don’t seem to do training anymore. Data are hard to come by, but we know that apprenticeship programs have largely disappeared, along with management-training programs. And the amount of training that the average new hire gets in the first year or so could be measured in hours and counted on the fingers of one hand.”

He’s got a lot more to say about all of this — you should read his entire article here — and it seems to make a lot of sense. Organizations could find plenty of workers for those hard-to-fill jobs, he feels, if they would just change their thinking and invest a little more in training and development.

Do you buy his premise? Some will and some won’t, but either way, it’s a debate we should be having in every workplace as talent management and HR professionals struggle to fill the jobs they do have open with the best possible people available. Somehow, I don’t think that discussion will be going away anytime soon.

For the rest of Dr. Peter Cappelli’s Wall Street Journal article, click here.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


4 Comments on “Are We Short of Skilled Workers, or Is it Just a Training Problem?

  1. I said for several years this would happen.  Dr Cappelli is on target.  It goes beyond training.  Many unemployed failed to grab the education opportunity in school. Even those that graduated failed to get the best education and instead opted for the path of least resistance.

    We need to promote adult literacy, adult education, and THEN we can talk about training.  In the 1950s the Navy designed an apprentice program at their Naval Ordnance Station in Louisville, Kentucky.  The Navy required employees to attend education classes one week of the month at half-pay.  The remaining weeks they were training in areas around the facilities. This program required two years to complete.

    Until we find that effort again, we can plan to continue on a sluggish path.

  2. My personal disposition is that responsible parties include
    all the players : workers, employers, and the education system.

    It’s the responsibility of the worker to be getting an
    education in relevant fields that will yield meaningful employment and generate and ROI for the educational investment.
    It’s the responsibility (or more so a proper human capital
    strategy) to ensure there is a continuous influx if entry level talent with a %
    being targeted for long term development. 

    It’s the responsibility of the education system to provide
    applicable and relevant programs that best prepare students to enter the
    workforce ready to contribute at a reasonable level.

    At some point here there will be a disrupting agent that
    comes in and forces a change to the current model. I don’t think it’s too crazy
    to think that in the future (and it’s probably closer than we realize) corporations will open up their own universities
    that offer accelerated education programs in key areas such as engineering,
    marketing, or communications where high school grads pay the corporations for a
    X-year long education and then prime positioning for that entry level role.

    The first stage of this transformation is already occurring in Silicon Valley IMO pertaining to software engineers. I’m not going to go into details, but this change is coming.

    Hmmmm….Learning and Development as a profit center and
    continuous fresh entry level talent pool? Sounds good to me.

  3. OK, so “downsizing” resulted in 2 people doing the work of 3.  Relatively no problem. 
    The 50% increase of workload of the survivors was offset by 1) Productivity improvements and 2) Remaining employees’ already existing knowledge of corporate practices, processes, and workarounds” to both – something most organizations do not account for.  Businesses forget that the experience of an employee (i.e., learning the system) is what allows them to be more productive.

    So additional cut-backs result in now 1 person doing the work of 2 (originally 3), resulting in basically
    “red-lining” that person’s productivity and engagement engine to the point of breakdown.   They quit.  So now where you originally had 3 people, you now have 0.

    Now you are left with looking for:
    – a person who can do the work of 3,
    – with no previous knowledge of the organization, it’s practices and procedures- who can “hit the ground running”

    NEWSFLASH:  These people either do not exist, or are in such small numbers that demand far exceeds supply and they are priced outside of what most “entry-level” situations are willing to bear.

    So we are at an interesting junction where business are saying “Where are all the ‘good hires’?” and a
    ready, willing, desirous and able (with a little bit of development) workforce is saying “Why won’t somebody hire me?”

    Somebody somewhere needs a good reality check.

    All the productivity-enhancing technology won’t do a thing if there are not any people using it.  No matter how much you automate it, people are still the life-blood of the enterprise!

    This means that businesses are going to have to admit that they need to invest in their people – not just their technology.  And with at least 50% of the workforce looking to “jump ship,” businesses are going to need to start thinking about it NOW! Investing comes in a variety of forms, including:
    – internal relationship-building,
    – providing meaningful work that adds value to both the business and the employee,
    – on-going training.

    It is a two-way street.

  4. I don’t think this is just about people failing at gaining educational opportunities in college. Recent college graduates have it tough, but they aren’t actually included in the unemployment figure are they, since they weren’t “employed” before, nor are they eligible to collect unemployment?

    What it looks like to me is company A loses someone who did B, C, D, E, F, G & H – half of those things being competencies learned while working in the position over a period of years and taking over a laid-off coworker’s responsibilities – but then want to hire someone who already has every single one of those things. Ignoring that the position had previously been filled by someone who had to build up to get to that level, even if it was just taking 2 hours to learn a simple computer program. Career development and gaining competencies is a lifelong process, and it ought to be one companies are willing to invest in the people that work for them, since it benefits the organization.

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