Talent? We Have It. We Just Need to Connect the Dots.

It's time for systems-based solutions.

By Clyde McQueen

So you think this is a tough climate for finding the right talent at your business, do you? Well, you’re not alone: The National Federation of Small Business tell us that in September, a record 38 percent of business owners reported job openings they could not fill. More than half of the companies in construction, manufacturing and transportation fell into that category, and nearly half of those in wholesale trades and retail.

I’m here to tell you: They’re all wrong. A great many factors are working in concert to create the perception that American businesses are engaged in a desperate battle for the talent needed to grow and thrive. But consider this: While the nation’s reported jobless rate fell to a nearly 50-year low of 3.7 percent last month, that “official” unemployment rate is just half of what we should consider the real unemployment rate. The Department of Labor’s broader U6 jobless rate of 7.4 percent includes those who are, in effect, under-employed. They are working at jobs beneath their skill sets, or piecing together two or more part-time jobs.

At the same time, the labor participation rate is under 63 percent of the population. Yes, a lot of those not working are retired or disabled, but a great many willing and able potential employees are included in there. That rate fell sharply with the job losses of the Great Recession, but it’s still well below the high-60s percentages that defined the U.S. economy for a generation before that.

The fact is, we don’t have a labor crisis. We have a skills-mismatch crisis. It is inflicting economic pain on millions of workers. It is holding back growth and even greater job creation at millions of small businesses. What’s causing it?

  • Part of it starts at home, where American families have over-bought into the concept that meaningful careers come only to those who have secured a four-year college degree.
  • Part of it with a K-12 educational system that has divested itself of nearly all instruction related to blue-collar work, including shop classes, automotive repair and maintenance, or courses related to heating, air conditioning and plumbing skills.
  • Part of it lies with a large cohort of employees who have never learned how to dress for work, show up on time and put in a full day’s work. Or how to shake an employer’s hand and look him in the eye, communicate effectively at even the most basic of levels, and develop support systems to help with emergencies like a sick child or a car that won’t start. A lot of employers call these “soft skills.” I don’t. To me, they are the hard skills that are foundational for turning any job into a successful career.
  • Part of it stems from a higher-education model that is centuries old and, despite some innovations, still badly in need of updating. It made sense to build education around the needs of a farming family 200 years ago, starting new academic years after the summer harvest; it makes less sense today, when knowledge can be obtained any time of the year, from anywhere in the world.
  • And part of it, frankly, lies with employers who see talent as something to be pulled from the shelf, like canned hams at the grocery store, rather than as an asset that must be developed. The employer willing to jettison a new worker who misses a shift to care for a sick child does a disservice to both the employee and his company—he’ll never know what kind of potential talent he’s forsaking.

In my 31 years of work-force development in Kansas City, and back in Texas before that, there have been many fundamental shifts in the nature of American business and manufacturing. Technology, machine learning and artificial intelligence guarantee that we’ll see more. But if we’re going to
address those issues as a regional business community, our approach cannot be siloed: We must account for the factors that perpetuate the disconnect between talent and employer.

Companies can and should finance continuing education for employees to get certificates for certain skills, opening the pathway to a degree and greater job relevance. And they should have support systems in place to help that single parent with that sick child, or help a worker get from the exurbs to the manufacturing floor if she has car trouble. More than many realize, a solution to their talent challenges lies well within their control.

This is not a Kansas City problem; it’s a problem throughout the country. Whoever figures this out will be the winner. If we
don’t figure it out here, jobs will go to other states—and talented workers with them.

But we won’t get there until people at all levels understand how important it is to have organic and systems-oriented solutions in place.

Clyde McQueen is president and CEO of the Full Employment Council in Kansas City.

P | 816.471.2330

E | cmcqueen@feckc.org