Two weeks ago, this amazing anecdote came my way: An acquaintance offered a salaried job to a young woman – a good job at a “best places to work” employer, at an “average American household” kind of salary and with excellent benefits. The canddiate was early in her career – around 30 – and while competent and bright, not a Rhodes Scholar or anything else extraordinary. Yet she turned down this plum position – because she’d had a competing offer, with even better terms, the same day.
How often do you hear a story like that in this economic climate? It prompted me to ponder the vagaries of our current jobs market and what I think might be, perhaps, the biggest story of the year for journalists able to pursue it: The apparent vast mismatch between what employers want and need, and what the languishing labor pool has to offer. I’ve mentioned it in passing before but it deserves its own post; I really don’t think there is a more compelling story out there. How can there be so many 99-weekers, millions of “discouraged workers” and many more reportedly sending out hundreds of resumes to no avail, when at the same time employers say good jobs are being spurned by their candidates of choice?
My anecdote is just that. But as the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey reported last month, there were 3.2 million job openings in October, up 35 percent since the end of the recession in 2009. An update to the report, reflecting November numbers, was scheduled to be released today. And four million people were hired in October, the report said, including gains even in hard-hit sectors like construction and manufacturing.
What IS it that distinguishes those four million or so people each month, or the young woman in my example – all now sporting new employee ID badges or their employer’s equivalent – from the 14 million or so persistently unemployed? That’s the question keeping jobless would-be workers and their families awake at night, even as employers tell pollsters that they can’t find suitable employees. This Bloomberg story from December, “Skills mismatch hurts unemployed in U.S. as job openings grow,” reports on the problem and cites a couple of surveys, including one from Manpower Inc. and one by the National Federation of Indepdendent Businesses, in which employers claim jobs are going begging for lack of qualified applicants.
How is the so-called talent gap affecting your region’s jobs market, and what – if anything – can be done about it? This is projects material; you could easily develop a year’s worth of stories from the employer and job-seekers’ points of view, along with a review of available re-training programs in your area and other initiatives aimed at making the long-term umeployed more marketable.
Empanel some human resources staffers from large area employers, along with the heads of small- and medium-sized companies (and representatives from retail chains and franchises, if they’ll participate) – and kick it off with a roundtable in which each manager presents an open job and the qualities they’re seeking in applicants. How does their vision compare with the resumes arriving in response? What mistakes or gaffes or skills deficiencies are they seeing on applications? What patterns or trends among todays’ applicants are of concern and how have selected candidates distinguished themselves? What remedial training or coaching are employers providing these days, and what schools, programs, certifications, professional credentials and other attributes make candidates attractive?
Talk with long-term unemployed (find them via unions, retraining programs, college placement offices, support groups for 99-weekers, message boards and Twitter searches as well as via word of mouth. Financial advisors might be able to hook you up with displaced middle-management and upscale clients whose unemployment status is changing retirement goals and plans.) – and have their resumes and interview styles critiqued by recruiting professionals or small-business owners.
What’s your state’s workforce commission doing to address the problem, as well as non-profits that specialize in helping people return to the workforce? All three facets of the skills mismatch problem – the employer, the unemployed and the agencies attempting to connect them – are just ripe for an exploration of why some people languish and others thrive in a competitive market.
You can try to get at deeper issues too, like age discrimination, a bias against long-term unemployed, changing work ethics or the pros and cons of automated, online hiring systems that may depersonalize the process and squelch applicants’ opportunity to pitch themselves. Any story that gets inside the minds of employers with jobs that go begging – and offers tips to workers on how they might make the cut – will readily be devoured by your audience.