What Employers Really Want? Workers They Don’t Have To Train

Not that long ago, an idea began to circulate that the U.S. economy was going to run out of workers. Consulting firms began pushing the idea, citing each others’reports as evidence. Reporters wrote about it. And a great many people in the private sector and the government swallowed the concept whole. By the mid-2000s, many big employers and even some government agencies were preparing for the Great Labor Shortage to set in by 2010.

While the idea seems preposterous now, something similarly absurd is happening again. Raise your hand if you’ve heard this: There are good jobs out there for people who have skills. But employers can’t find people to hire because high schools are failing and college students aren't majoring in the hard subjects where the jobs are. The economy, as they say, is facing a skills gap.

I’ve recently reviewed all the papers and stories on this question, and there is no more truth to this notion than there was to the labor shortage idea. It got popular attention with media reports about a handful of employers in the depths of the Great Recession who could not fill job openings. Then came a series of papers issued by consultants and business associations asking employers whether they were having difficulty hiring employees. Many were, but the investigators didn’t ask what was difficult, or investigate why.

The real issue is that employers’ expectations — for the skills of new graduates, for what they must invest in training, and for how much they need to pay their employees — have grown increasingly out of step with reality.

The first problem with the skills gap argument is that the employer reports, which form the entire basis of evidence, are about overall hiring rather than jobs filled by recent graduates. In other words, the complaint is really that companies are having trouble finding applicants at all career levels with the right work history, rather than not having enough recent graduates with the skills to be hired. Because the vast majority of job seekers have been out of school for decades, the complaints are really unrelated to what schools are doing now.

When employers are specifically asked about recent graduates, their complaints have nothing to do with academic skills. They often express the same concerns older generations have always had about y