If labor supply woes and the skills gap aren’t real, should the feds spend many billions more on job training and postsecondary education?
That question misses the point, says Annelies Goger
, an economic geographer at the Brookings Institution. The nation doesn’t have a labor shortage, she says. But it certainly has an opportunity gap and a dysfunctional labor market.
“The debate about whether the problem is a lack of jobs or a lack of skills presents a false binary,” says Goger. “Frankly I find it elitist, because it is disconnected from the pain points that people actually experience in the labor market.”
Americans change jobs frequently in today’s economy, and are likely to get a job through someone they know. Workers often aren’t aware of available employment options, she says, or how to market themselves for a new field.
Employers tend to describe the problem as a failure of the individual rather than of systems, says Goger. And without examining how their own recruitment, hiring, and management practices may be biased or invalid, businesses too often fail to see talent when it shows up in different forms and to treat talent development as a cost rather than an investment.
“If we value equity and innovation, we need to stop making people jump through confusing hoops to get some career counseling, connect with mentors, or find support like transportation,”
says Goger, who authored a report last year
on how to help Americans who have lost jobs during the pandemic transition to new and better employment opportunities.
Federal job training expenditures proposed by the White House would bring the United States up to roughly the average of what other industrialized nations spend on labor-market adjustment programs, according to Goger, and a relatively small share of that spending goes to training.
“We need to focus on meeting people where they are and designing around what they need to have success in the labor market,” she says, “whether that’s work experience, training, some coaching, or child care.”
An Interest Gap?
The new jobs report and other data are showing signs of potential hiring problems in some industries.
Caveats abound and the “dynamics are funny right now,” Ben Casselman
, an economics and business reporter for The New York Times
, said on Twitter
. But he noted that manufacturers cut jobs last month, while retail and transportation and warehousing also saw dips. And wages are spiking in leisure and hospitality, a possible sign
of labor shortages.
Part of the problem could be that the jobs being created are different from the ones lost in the recession
, says Andrew Hanson
, director of research at the Strada Education Network. “That requires workers to adapt—to reskill and transition to the fields where those jobs are being created.”
Strada’s Public Viewpoint survey last year found
that workers who are looking to change fields tend not to be interested in transitioning to several sectors with strong demand or emerging labor shortages. Only 8 percent of potential career switchers were interested in leisure/hospitality, for example, with similarly low interest in health care (8 percent), retail (6 percent), and manufacturing (2 percent).
Although a lot of workers are interested in reskilling and transitioning to a new field, they often aren’t interested in moving into where the jobs are. So part of what’s going on here is what I would call an “interest gap” in where workers want to work and the kind of work that’s actually available.
Restaurants in particular have drawn attention for being unable to fill open positions.
As a recent Washington Post article suggested
, some of this phenomenon may be due to laid-off restaurant workers rethinking their career and life priorities—a luxury typically afforded to wealthy, WFH knowledge-economy workers. And a growing body of anecdotes
shows many unemployed and lower-income Americans also are now taking a hard look
at their next steps, albeit under more stressful circumstances.
“People feel burned. Or burned out. Experiencing this made people more aware of what they were missing out on,” Michael Beltran
, a Miami-based chef and high-end restaurateur, told the WaPo
. “This gave them a kick in the [rear end] to do something different, to find their real life.”