Worker Skills and Job Requirements: Is There a Mismatch?

David Pearce Snyder (Consulting Futurist)

On the Horizon

ISSN: 1074-8121

Article publication date: 1 April 2006



Pearce Snyder, D. (2006), "Worker Skills and Job Requirements: Is There a Mismatch?", On the Horizon, Vol. 14 No. 2, pp. 92-94.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2006, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Any volume whose title announces that it seeks to answer a contentious contemporary question merits at least a cursory examination. In the case of Worker Skills and Job Requirements: Is There a Mismatch? A brief perusal yields rewarding dividends, not because it unequivocally answers the eponymous question of its title, but because the author reports that his close examination of the question reveals considerable ambiguity that will require much better data to resolve than are currently available. In fact, after examining over 150 published reports, labor market analyses and employer surveys, Michael Handel concludes that: “The very existence of a skills mismatch or skills shortage may be in doubt, and is by no means as obvious as is often asserted”.

Since the loudest voices in the 25‐year public discourse on the topic of worker preparation have routinely asserted that there is a growing gap between worker skills and the increasingly sophisticated requirements of post‐industrial employment, Handel's inability to find any direct evidence of such a gap must be regarded as a revelation. Equally striking is the author's conclusion that the available data, though somewhat limited and not entirely consistent, actually show no evidence of a skills decline in the US workforce. And, while he acknowledges employers' widespread complaints about the skills of entry‐level employees – especially high‐school educated workers – Handel's review of employer hiring criteria and recruit rejection statistics strongly suggests that firms are far more unhappy with young peoples' inappropriate work attitudes than with their inadequate work aptitudes.

Citing national employer surveys from 1983 and 2001, Handel points out that 80 to 90+ percent of employers consistently identify “motivation,” “attitude” and “dependability” as recruitment criteria, while only 10 to 20 percent cite “computer,” “math” or “problem‐solving” skills as desirable characteristics for new hires. Because this book is almost exclusively concerned with the overall national workforce and national job market, there is little discussion or data devoted specifically to future requirements for post‐secondary skills. The author simply points out that “the claims of accelerating demands for college graduates also do not seem to reflect employers' expressed needs.”

Reviewer's comment: Handel's conclusion in this respect nicely complements the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) ten‐year job forecasts, reported elsewhere in this issue of On The Horizon, in which neither the occupational nor the sectoral economic data reflect future increases in labor market demand for college graduates – see “From higher education to longer, fuller, further education.”

Worker Skills and Job Requirements does not immediately plunge the reader into a cold shower of iconoclastic data. The author begins by showing how social scientists like Daniel Bell (1976) created the expectation of a “post‐industrial society” that would require a “technically skilled” workforce. Handel argues that Bell's hopeful vision was subsequently turned into a baleful prospect by the 1983 Report of the National Commission On Excellence in Education, A Nation At Risk, which warned of dire consequences from declining US high school and college test scores, poor international test rankings and low adult literacy rates. He goes on to show that much of that alarmist data has since been subject to considerable refinement and revision. We now know, for example, that US adult literacy rates are not 50 percent, as was widely misreported in 1993, but over 90 percent – just like that of the other mature industrial economies. But such clarifications came too late. The terms of the public policy debate had already been set.

Handel then asserts that William Julius Wilson, among others, reinforced the alarmist mindset of the schools‐skills debate by reaching the logical conclusion that, in the coming high‐tech workplace – where a college degree would be needed to earn a middle‐income wage – decaying city schools were preparing millions of poor African‐Americans to become a “permanent urban underclass” (1987). In response to Wilson's warning, the body politic – in the form of the US Secretary of Labor's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) – proceeded to create a daunting detailed inventory of basic skills that every high school graduate should possess to succeed in the workplace (1991). A “validating” survey of 2,500 Michigan employers rated every one of the 200+ SCANS competencies “very important”.

The SCANS inventory made the case: since high schools could not reasonably be expected to deliver such a sophisticated array of capabilities, everybody would obviously need some sort of post‐secondary schooling. But these “hortatory guidelines,” as Handel labels the SCANS inventory, were undifferentiated by level of complexity – or by the kind or number of jobs to which any combination of skills might apply. “They added nothing to our understanding of what needed to be done,” he writes “Notions of a workplace skills mismatch remained a confused jumble of different ideas; ‘sketchy, vague and diverse, if not internally contradictive’.”

Not surprisingly, Handel ultimately announces that: “The need for a standard, common set of measures for worker skills and job skill requirements is one key finding that emerges from this review of the existing data”.

In the process of documenting this conclusion, Handel also clarifies two crucial parameters of the current debate over the relationship between workers' skills and workers' wages: “Cross‐sectional studies suggest that employers are less concerned about cognitive skills deficits than they are about what they consider poor work habits, motivation, demeanor and attitudes”.

If employers are largely satisfied with the cognitive skills of current entry‐level workers, and BLS forecasts reflect no increased future requirements for cognitive skills (as the author notes), does this mean that US educators should now concentrate on improving their students' workplace attitudes? How would they go about that? Would employers be willing to pay higher wages for highly‐motivated workers? Would such workers actually be more productive? Handel, a careful interpreter of his data, does not speculate on these questions. His findings, on the other hand, provoke the reader to reflect on these questions again and again. “Service sector employment requires higher average skills but pays lower average wages than manufacturing and other male‐dominated jobs in primary industries, where workers are supported by substantial investments in productivity‐enhancing capital plant and equipment”.

The failure to understand this second reality, Handel writes: “Has resulted in a misdirected policy debate generating a level of concern over worker skills that is disproportionate to what is warranted by a sober assessment of the evidence”.

With over 165 reference citations in just 104 pages, there is “never a dull moment” in this data‐rich, enjoyably‐written, important little book.

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