Despite high jobless rate, pool of qualified workers in some sectors is insufficient

SHORTAGE IN SKILLS KEEP JOBS VACANT

January 20, 1992|By Bill Barnhart | Bill Barnhart,Chicago Tribune

Chicago -- Bridging the so-called skills gap, which separates jobs that go begging and people begging for jobs, is as complex as the increasingly diverse nature of the work force.

Despite the headlines about job cuts and reduced hiring plans, employers in many large and small companies still swear they have jobs but can't find suitable applicants.

In Maryland, for example, some insurance companies are having difficulty finding qualified sales agents, even though the state reports that about 140,000 people are pounding the bricks looking for work.

And there are still some positions going unfilled in nursing and bio-medical fields. Trained nurses can just about name their place of employment, according to Dennis L. Yeagle, manager of the state's job service office in Towson. He said there are also openings in the bio-medical field for genetic researchers and phlebotomists, the medical term for persons that draw blood.

A study released in November by the National Association of Manufacturers found that about 30 percent of the manufacturing firms surveyed in the Great Lakes region reported shortages of skilled and semi-skilled craft workers. A greater percentage expect shortages of such workers in the next five years.

On the other hand, these same manufacturers and their peers nationwide report numerous shortcomings among the people they interview for jobs. Reasons for rejecting applicants include such widely discussed factors as lack of reading, math skills and problem-solving skills, drug and medical problems and inadequate work experience.

But the factor most often mentioned in the survey was more subtle and potentially more intractable.

Sixty-four percent of employers responding said they were rejecting applicants for entry-level jobs because of "poor adaptation." Officials at the trade association and at Towers Perrin, the consulting firm that worked on the survey, acknowledged that "poor adaptation" lacks a precise, measurable definition.

In part, it gauges the employer's sense that "the way the individual behaves during the interview or the reference checks on the person lead them to believe that this person will adapt poorly to the work environment," according to the NAM report.

Employers talk about "cultural" differences and gut feelings and agree that "poor adaptation" may be a catch-all concept that varies widely according to the employment setting, the job under consideration and the specific person facing the interviewer.

"I wonder how much of this discomfort is discomfort with people who aren't white males," said Greg Leroy, research director of the Midwest Center for Labor Research.

Alternatively, maybe it's the fact that the applicant is late for the interview and, as his or her first question, asks about the company's policy on time off, said Randy Hale, NAM vice president for industrial relations.

Claudia Miranda, a graduate of the Hispanic Coalition for Jobs and an employee of Chicago-based juice maker McCain Citrus Inc., put it this way: "They want somebody who is reliable, dependable with a positive attitude who is able to grow with the company."

Whatever it is, employers and people involved in preparing individuals for entry-level jobs agree that intangible factors, such as "poor adaptation," are becoming more important in the hiring decision, just as the nature of work in all industries and at all income levels itself becomes more intangible.

George Dean, vice president of planning and development at the nationwide career-oriented education firm DeVry Inc., said that as its DeVry Institutes attempt to tailor their four-year bachelor's programs to current employer needs, "what we're seeing today is an increasing importance of the soft side as opposed to the hard side."

The "soft side" includes interpersonal skills, teamwork, written and oral communication, attitude and understanding the "big picture" context of the job and the company in a global marketplace. An increasing amount of the DeVry coursework addresses such issues as well as the technical skills traditionally associated with so-called vocational education, Mr. Dean said.

The "poor adaptation" problem is not unique to economically disadvantaged and poorly educated minorities who are an increasing presence in the labor market. Indeed, employers who interview prospects for high-skill jobs in computers and other technical fields often find the demeanor of well-credentialed applicants curious if not offensive.

What's more, the current generation of first-time job seekers, from all levels of education and wealth, often have non-traditional, highly individualized ideas about what they expect from a job, said Ronald Porter, who heads the human resource and communications consulting practice for Towers Perrin in Philadelphia and helped prepare the NAM study.

Mr. Porter said he's typical of this trend, which historically speaking represents the demise of the so-called organization man. "Even in my own organization, I don't expect that other people are like me or me like them," he said.

Employers need to adapt to this reality -- a task that grows harder as the size of the organization increases.

But championing the cause of individuality probably won't land you a job today, especially in the middle of a national economic malaise, say job training specialists. In the long run, "poor adaptation" is a two-way street between employees and employers, but despite the shrinking labor pool, employers have the upper hand right now.

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