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What companies are, and aren’t, doing to find qualified workers

It’s been a familiar lament over the past few years: The idea that even though millions of Americans are unemployed, companies across the country just can’t find enough qualified workers.

New data suggests that although many companies continue to complain about the so-called skills gap, only a minority of companies are taking steps to fix it.

The CareerBuilder survey of 1,648 U.S. hiring managers and human resources professionals, released Thursday, found that nearly eight in 10 managers are at least somewhat concerned about the skills gap, while just about four in 10 companies are doing anything to alleviate it.

The results come as the labor market continues to slowly add jobs, but unemployment remains high and millions are still out of work. The latest jobs numbers are scheduled to be released Friday.

Experts say the weak job market has left many companies feeling like they can still demand a candidate who has a perfect record, plenty of relevant experience — and is willing to take a temporary job for relatively low pay.

“Sometimes we call that a purple squirrel,” said Jorge Perez , senior vice president in the North American division of the staffing firm Manpower. 

Manpower’s own talent shortage survey, released earlier this year, found that 39 percent of U.S. employers are having trouble finding employees who have the right skills, a drop from 49 percent in 2012.

Although the latest figures show there is still a problem, Perez said the drop from 2012 shows that some employers have become more willing to accept that the purple squirrel may not exist. If they want the perfect candidate, they may need to do some training — either in-house or in partnership with others — and offer a good salary, full-time status and some benefits.

Matt Ferguson, CareerBuilder’s chief executive, said he also is starting to see a few signs that some companies are taking it upon themselves to build a more qualified, competitive workforce. Those efforts range from AT&T’s decision to participate in a much-hyped, experimental effort to offer a low-cost graduate degree in computer science to individual companies being more willing to hire a worker with some skills, and train them in others.

“I think they’re getting to the point where they have to,” said Ferguson, who is also one author of a new book on navigating the skills gap and creating a competitive workforce.

In general, companies appear to be working a little harder to find the best candidate, although not nearly as hard as they did when the job market was stronger.

Steven J. Davis, a management professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Management, said his index of recruitment intensity — essentially, how hard employers are looking for the right workers — has only partially recovered since falling sharply amid the recession and financial crisis in 2008 and 2009.

He says employers don’t yet seem to be feeling a lot of pressure to hire any one candidate, because they see that so many people are still out of work.

“Employers know that if they don’t fill a job today and they really have a tremendous need, they can fill it in a month,” he said.

Skills mismatch?
CareerBuilder’s Ferguson said there are some legitimate concerns about a mismatch between the jobs that are available and the workers that are out there. He notes that the Great Recession led to millions of job cuts in fields like construction and manufacturing, and the advent of technology has reduced the need for some administrative workers. That’s presumably left some workers possessing skills that no one needs anymore. 

Meanwhile, the push to keep down costs also has left some companies looking for one person with a multitude of skills — marketing, data analysis and information technology, for example.

Still, some experts say that the rampant complaints about unqualified workers in the aftermath of the recession are overblown. Paul Osterman, a management professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, recently completed a nationally representative survey of about 1,000 manufacturing firms.

He found that only about 25 percent of companies appeared to be having trouble finding workers, as measured by the company having a job vacancy for three months or more.

Those companies that were having trouble tending to be smaller and more innovative, he said, pointing to a legitimate concern that a minority of companies are in need of specialized skills that are hard to find.

“I’m not telling you there’s zero problem,” he said. “I’m telling you the level of hysteria is wrong.”

Broader skills gap 
Still, others are argue that there are longer-term worries about how skilled the American workforce is generally when compared to other economies with which the U.S. competes.

A detailed worldwide report on worker skills, released last month by the Organization for Economic Development, found that the United States ranked below average among OECD member countries in literacy and numeracy, which measures math skills.

Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s deputy director for education and skills, said the results were particularly concerning when looking more closely at younger American adults. They tended to be about as skilled in math and reading as their grandparents, while in other countries younger adults were outperforming older ones.

“In most countries there has been a significant sort of generation gap,” Schleicher said. “You don’t see that for the United States.”

Allison Linn is a reporter at CNBC. Follow her on Twitter @allisondlinn or send her an e-mail.