Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Shortage of Workers

In this article on the "PhD glut" in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields, the author comments on the commonly-held belief that there is a lack of skilled technology workers in the US (which both pumps up the visa system for bringing in cheaper overseas workers and encourages the idea that we need more people to get graduate degrees in these fields/paints an inappropriately rosy picture of post-degree job prospects for those who go through with it):

"When high tech companies and their lobbyists claim there is a shortage of skilled high technology workers, they usually use general language such as “there is a shortage of engineers,” “there is a shortage of programmers,” or “there is a shortage of technology talent.” However, when pressed about seemingly qualified, often older workers who cannot find jobs, they refer to both extensive and very narrowly defined specific skills that they claim they must have. Older often means over forty or even over thirty-five. As in the case of the forty year old husband of Jennifer Wedel, who confronted President Obama about the shortage claims, these older workers who encounter problems finding work despite seemingly strong qualifications are often not very old.

One can always assert a shortage of workers by narrowly specifying the skills required. Consider digging a ditch. Suppose I demand that prospective ditch diggers must: have at least three years paid professional experience digging ditches using the Big Box Mart Super Squabo 2.0 shovel which my company uses. A Black and Decker shovel won’t do. Not just any ditch digging, it must be three years paid professional experience digging ditches for gas pipelines in a medium sized city with a population from 50-200,000 people. Ditches for sewage lines won’t do. Digging ditches for gas pipelines in New York City won’t do because New York has a population over 200,000. And so on. Even though ditch diggers are surely not in short supply, I can find a shortage by narrowing my standards for ditch diggers. This sort of narrowing of standards is surely a symptom of either gross irrationality or an actual surplus of qualified applicants that makes it possible to impose such narrow requirements.

Of course, most people know or believe they know enough about ditch digging and other low status, frequently manual jobs that this sort of argument would provoke only laughter and disbelief. Hence similar worker shortage claims about low status, generally lower paying jobs in the United States usually involve claims that spoiled Americans are unwilling to do such hard manual labor. It is harder to evaluate the plausibility of such ultra-narrow job specifications where technical jobs such as software engineering are concerned."

That article links to this one, about the mythical nature of the worker shortage problem:

"With an abundance of workers to choose from, employers are demanding more of job candidates than ever before. They want prospective workers to be able to fill a role right away, without any training or ramp-up time....In other words, to get a job, you have to have that job already. It's a Catch-22 situation for workers—and it's hurting companies and the economy....

The perceptions about a lack of skilled workers are pervasive. The staffing company ManpowerGroup, for instance, reports that 52% of U.S. employers surveyed say they have difficulty filling positions because of talent shortages.

But the problem is an illusion.

Some of the complaints about skill shortages boil down to the fact that employers can't get candidates to accept jobs at the wages offered. That's an affordability problem, not a skill shortage. A real shortage means not being able to find appropriate candidates at market-clearing wages. We wouldn't say there is a shortage of diamonds when they are incredibly expensive; we can buy all we want at the prevailing prices.

The real problem, then, is more appropriately an inflexibility problem. Finding candidates to fit jobs is not like finding pistons to fit engines, where the requirements are precise and can't be varied. Jobs can be organized in many different ways so that candidates who have very different credentials can do them successfully."

I read this stuff several days ago, but these articles -- particularly these passages -- really stuck with me.

As a job seeker, I think the Specific Ditch Experience thing is spot-on.  And I love how the diamond analogy points out the ludicrousness of calling the "Want something and don't want to pay for it" problem that employers have a worker shortage.

One thing I've noticed looking at job listings is how often jobs that are labeled as "Entry Level" often require a year or two of experience, and not just general work experience or experience through classwork, etc., with particular software, but full-time, professional Specific Ditch Experience.  The "how do I get a job without experience or experience without a job" conundrum is an old one, but my sense is that this situation has gotten worse.  I've also been seeing a fair number of listing for interns this past week, and it's shocking to what the requirements/job responsibilities are for those.  They look like what you'd expect an actual entry level position to be (or maybe more) -- and I'm not just talking about ones targeted at MBA grads, but for people with or soon to have BAs.

I guess the takeaway is that the entry level job is the new junior but not inexperienced job, the internship is the new entry level job, the master's degree is the new bachelor's degree, the bachelor's degree is the new high school diploma, and...blah, the job search sucks, people.


Debbie said...


I used to call people sometimes to ask why I didn't get the job and the answer was always because they had found someone who had already done the exact same job. I'd always thought that if I had already done the exact same job, I would still be there. Why did this other person leave?

I tended to get jobs where they know that virtually no one else has had that exact same job (WordPerfect on the Mac in 1988 when everyone used Word on Macs and WordPerfect on PCs) or the in-house degree audit system.

My last employer definitely has that problem where they have supposedly entry-level jobs, with embarrassingly low pay, for which they require two years of experience.

Robin's been noticing that it's hard to find tech writers who actually know grammar. Fortunately, that's something that's easy to test for, so you don't have to rely on picking someone with that exact job (which is not reliable AT ALL).

Everyone's afraid of hiring a terrible worker, but their methods leave a lot of room for improvement (for all concerned). I suppose they do better than by choosing a resume at random, but I'm not sure how much better.

Sally said...

Debbie, I hear you on the "exact same job" thing -- I am getting the sense that that's happening to me also, and it makes me wonder: is everyone in the world now just making lateral moves to new employers? I thought the consensus was that the best way to get a promotion was to move to another company, but if they want to hire someone who's done the exact same job already...? I guess maybe in some cases they go for someone who has done the exact same job at a slightly lower level but with a direct competitor so they can also feel like they're stealing workers from their competitors/getting some kind of inside info that way. I don't know. But God, it is so frustrating!

The jobs at my (ex-)university here that I've seen listed on their site seem to be shockingly low paid, like worse than comparable state jobs. I mean, it's a public university, but the pay seems to compare disfavorably to jobs at state agencies, which are already very poorly paid -- worse than in TX. Robert received a job offer doing the exact same job he'd been doing in TX and it paid $8,000 less (and this was 2 years later).

Unfortunately for me, my last job (pre-grad school) was a job that really only existed at that employer and that there are very few people in the country have ever done. If the equivalent job opened up with our state wildlife agency, I would be in like Flynn. But that's probably not going to happen.

Robert was lucky to break into a new industry, for a job that he hadn't done before, at a good pay level. It was pretty exciting at the time, but it now feels startling to me that he got that job. (It was from a job ad, too, not something he networked his way into.) But it's now clear that his boss likes people with advanced degrees and is less concerned (even than Robert) with exact job experience.

I need to find someone to be impressed with my academic credentials! :)

Debbie said...

What's impressive about me is my GRE scores. No one asks for that!

When I worked for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, my boss told me that UT was the only state employer that she could outpay. So possibly universities generally pay less than state jobs. Even UT which pays much more than the other colleges and universities in town.

And even with the pension getting pretty crappy, they are not making up for it with higher salaries. Plus they're still acting like we're in a recession and so they still can't afford to have a full staff.

mom said...

What's crazy about the "exact same job" issue is that even when you are in a job there are changes that the current employees have to make and they are capable of that, so why can't they hire someone who can learn new stuff (which traditionally has been the case). We just changed software at the library and it's new to all of us. Are we all going to lose our jobs because we now don't have the "exact same job"? No, we are all going to learn the new software and do just fine.

Sally said...

Man, I wish companies were eager to hire people with high GRE scores and an ability to learn new stuff -- I would be golden.

The fact that people have to learn new stuff in their present jobs and manage to do so is a really good point. I don't know why there is this (seemingly greater than ever) obsession with people being "ready to go" (whatever that means) from Day 1.

I guess a lot of companies have figured out that for entry-level positions at least, you can do that training under the guise of an unpaid internship and then only start paying people once they've learned what they need to know. For those of us who are more experienced workers...well, good luck, I guess.

jen said...

I think a big problem (in engineering for sure, and certainly other fields) is that a lot of people interviewing don't really know how to interview people. So they ask what they know or what someone has asked them in the past and that's it, regardless of whether the questions relate directly to skills required for the position and/or neglect a whole range of other skills that are equally if not more important. Then consider that the person interviewing you doesn't even necessarily know what the skills required for the position you're going for are, especially if they do something else. Add in a hiring committee to remove any possibility of the person making the hiring decision having any sort of gut instinct about you as a potential employee, and we're all screwed.

Sally said...

Jen, good point on lack of interviewing skills among hiring managers (and lack of knowledge about positions among HR people). It's a lot easier to ask/sort on whether somebody has 3 years of experience with the Specific Shovel than to get a sense (an accurate one) of their ability to learn quickly or problem solve or whatever.

Debbie said...

I've heard that even if you're not a slime bucket, it makes sense to be like a politician and have a few sound-bites ready and then, almost no matter what they ask, give them one of your sound-bite answers. This way, if they are too ignorant to ask the right questions, they still find out the important information. (And you will be one-up on your competition who only answer the exact question asked.)