The mythical unskilled American workforce

Lee Teschler – Executive Editor

On Twitter @DW—LeeTeschler

I once sat through a panel session at a technical conference that featured engineering managers from four large high-tech companies. They all moaned about the lack of youngsters entering the engineering profession and about finding engineers with the right kind of skills. To hear them talk, you’d think skilled engineers were impossible to find.

But a funny thing happened when the topic turned to engineers the panelists were hiring themselves. It turned out that companies represented on the panel were generally satisfied with the kind of people going on their own payrolls. So apparently there was a big skills shortage somewhere, affecting other companies, but not affecting any of them.

LTeschlerThe ambiguity of this incident came to mind with the recent publication of a study by two labor economists who have concluded that, despite shrill claims to the contrary, most manufacturers don’t need workers with high-level skills. One thing that got U. of Illinois professor Andrew Weaver and Paul Osterman of M.I.T. interested in the subject of manufacturing skills was the results of manufacturing surveys during the great recession. One claimed as many as 600,000 manufacturing jobs were going unfilled during a time when unemployment was at 9%. Moreover, these surveys took place following a period where manufacturing employment had declined by a third, putting millions of trained workers on the street.

To get to the bottom of things, the economists contacted 900 plants in a wide variety of manufacturing industries and asked about hiring, vacancies, and the skills of the employees who were most critical to production. It turned out that the most widespread “skill” that manufacturers were looking for was the ability to read an instruction manual. Close behind was the ability to do arithmetic as taught in grade school.

Only about 38% of manufacturers needed employees who could do high school math – algebra, trig, and geometry. Just 7% needed workers able to do calculus or other advanced math.

Even the computer skills manufacturers needed were modest. Just 28% of them wanted people who could use CAD/CAM software.

It also emerged that more manufacturers had more wide-spread needs for people who had soft skills than for those with hard skills. At the top of the soft-skill list was the ability to cooperate with other employees. Nearly all manufacturers said this factor was extremely important. Following close behind were the ability to evaluate the quality of output and to take action when quality wasn’t right.

The researchers took particular interest in manufacturers operating in high-tech industries. Interestingly, these facilities didn’t have significantly higher math demands. Plants that did, in fact, need people with higher math skills tended to be those with TQM programs or where plants used self-directed teams.

Nor did it seem to take manufacturers a long time to find good workers. The average time to fill a critical manufacturing position was about six weeks. And many plants demanding high skills didn’t report a significantly higher rate of long-term job vacancies. The single factor correlating with lengthy vacancies was a physical location within a cluster of specialized plants, particularly where there was a demand for highly specialized skills.

All in all, the picture that emerges from the study is that employers bemoaning the quality of the American workforce may be going by things they’ve merely heard rather than by what they’ve actually experienced.


  1. Stephen Griffin says:

    I suspect that this phenomenon — bemoaning a situation or condition without actually experiencing it — is far more widespread these days than just the lack of skilled laborers. In fact, this particular non factual complaint may be the result of a trend toward such repetition of false information: Mexicans flooding across the border (true enough, direction wrong), minority welfare cheats (most welfare is taken by whites), the military is being dismantled (then ‘dismantle’ my company, please), etc. It may be driven by social media, where it is apparently fine to vote on what is real and what is not by ‘sharing’ and ‘retweeting’ bogus tales without bothering to verify if there is anything at all true within the posts.

    I was taught in the third grade not to spread rumors because rumors were rarely true. We even played the game ‘telephone’ to illustrate how true stories can be completely distorted in the retelling. Surely others had similar education. Why can’t folks remember what they learned firsthand?

    We need a veracity campaign in this country, and probably many other countries (Brexit comes to mind); a campaign of shaming or some other negative consequence for those who pass on unvetted cock-and-bull.

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