Employers: We Just Can't Fill Our Underpaid Job Openings!

This appeared in the Wall Street Journal, so the article's very sympathetic to employers who say they can't fill job openings. First, let me wipe

This appeared in the Wall Street Journal, so the article's very sympathetic to employers who say they can't fill job openings. First, let me wipe the tears from my eyes, and then let me suggest a couple of free-market solutions.

As one company mentioned in the article did, employers should set up their own job-training programs. Hire some good people, and teach them. I know you're used to us paying to train ourselves, but hey, that's the way the cookie crumbles these days.

The other free market solution? You're pissing and moaning that you can't fill jobs, but you're obviously not offering enough money for people to live on. In other words, you don't want to pay what the market will bear. Right?

In Bloomington, Ill., machine shop Mechanical Devices can't find the workers it needs to handle a sharp jump in business. Job fairs run by airline Emirates attract fewer applicants in the U.S. than in other countries. Truck-stop operator Pilot Flying J says job postings don't elicit many more applicants than they did when the unemployment rate was below 5%.

With a 9.5% jobless rate and some 15 million Americans looking for work, many employers are inundated with applicants. But a surprising number say they are getting an underwhelming response, and many are having trouble filling open positions.

"This is as bad now as at the height of business back in the 1990s," says Dan Cunningham, chief executive of the Long-Stanton Manufacturing Co., a maker of stamped-metal parts in West Chester, Ohio, that has been struggling to hire a few toolmakers. "It's bizarre. We are just not getting applicants."

Employers and economists point to several explanations. Extending jobless benefits to 99 weeks gives the unemployed less incentive to search out new work. Millions of homeowners are unable to move for a job because the real-estate collapse leaves them owing more on their homes than they are worth.

The job market itself also has changed. During the crisis, companies slashed millions of middle-skill, middle-wage jobs. That has created a glut of people who can't qualify for highly skilled jobs but have a hard time adjusting to low-pay, unskilled work like the food servers that Pilot Flying J seeks for its truck stops.

Don't you just love the way they put this? Jobless benefits give the unemployed "less incentive to search out new work." New work that pays so little, it won't even give them enough to cover their rent and food in the same month. (Isn't America great?)

The difficulty finding workers limits the economy's ability to grow. It is particularly troubling at a time when 4.3% of the labor force has been out of work for more than six months—a level much higher than after any other recession since 1948.

Some economists fear the U.S. could end up with a permanent caste of long-term unemployed, like those that weigh on government budgets in some European countries. "It is a very worrisome development," says Steven Davis, an economist at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business. "It leads over a long period of time to social alienation as well as economic hardship."

[...] Of course, many jobs remain easy to fill. Companies offering middle-skilled jobs can be flooded with applicants. Laquita Stribling, a senior area vice president in Nashville for staffing firm Randstad, says she received several hundred applications for a branch manager job that might have attracted a few dozen candidates before the recession.

"The talent pool has swollen to the point where it's almost overwhelming," says Ms. Stribling.

But other employers with lots of applicants say the pool of qualified workers is small for specialized jobs. Carolyn Henn, head of hiring at environmental consultancy Apex Companies, says she recently received about 150 applications for an industrial hygienist job paying as much as $47,000 a year, which requires special certifications and expertise to oversee projects such as asbestos cleanups. That is about three times the amount she received for similar jobs before the recession. But she says the number of qualified applicants—about five—is less than she got before.

As I said, Carolyn: Hire people and train them. That's what they did back in the old days, and this is turning out to be an awful lot like them.

About Susie Madrak

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