The Other Jobs Crisis

You'd think that in today's world employers wouldn't have trouble finding qualified employees. You'd be wrong.

In an era of 9% unemployment, and long-term unemployment higher than America has seen in at least a generation, one would think that nearly any employer looking for people to hire would have little trouble finding someone to fill the position. Indeed, over the past two and half years or so, we’ve all seen numerous stories of thousands of people showing up to fill only a few hundred, or less, job openings in a given city, and job fairs have become even more popular than they used to be. So, you’re an employer and you need to hire a few people, no problem right?

Well, as The Wall Street Journal reports today, that’s not exactly the case:

Ferrie Bailey’s job should be easy: hiring workers amid the worst stretch of unemployment since the Depression.

A recruiter for Union Pacific Corp., she has openings to fill, the kind that sometimes seem to have all but vanished: secure, well-paying jobs with good benefits that don’t require a college degree.

But they require specialized skills—expertise in short supply even with the unemployment rate at 9%. Which is why on a recent morning the recruiter found herself in a hiring hall here anxiously awaiting the arrival of just two people she had invited to interviews, winnowed from an initial group of nearly five dozen applicants. With minutes to go, the folding chairs sat empty. “I don’t think they’re going to show,” Ms. Bailey said, pacing in the basement room.

The rest of the article is unfortunately behind the WSJ paywall, but I think I think the general point is made. Even in an era of high unemployment, there are high-skilled jobs out there that are going unfilled because there aren’t people qualified to fill them. Part of the problem, obviously, is that the jobs and the people aren’t always in the same place. Bailey, for example, is looking to higher people in the Denver area. Now, it may well be that there are plenty of qualified people for these positions in Ohio, or Michigan, or Pennsylvania looking for work, but the workers and the employers aren’t necessarily going to find each other and, mobility for a skilled worker who probably has a family isn’t the same as it might be for 20-something kid looking to find their way in the world. There are industries, of course, where mobility is a way of life — oil workers, truck drivers, and of course the military come to mind — but for most Americans the idea of picking up and moving half way across the country isn’t an easy one to contemplate simply because of all the complications involved in family, personal relationships. and other obligations.

The article also brings to mind a point that has been discussed here at OTB many times over the years, the question of whether a college education really is the best option for everyone. Moe Lane, for one, reads the article as a sign that maybe his kids should go to electrician’s school:

Or maybe it’ll be plumber’s school.  Or welding.  Doesn’t really matter: until people don’t have to spend tens of thousands of dollars a year to get poorly educated for white-collar jobs that don’t actually exist, some sort of technical training is looking more and more attractive. We’re always going to need electricians and plumbers, and they can improve their minds on their lunch breaks.  Which they’ll get, because we’re always going to need electricians and plumbers.

It’s not an invalid point, of course. In an era when students are graduating from college with Bachelor’s degrees and find themselves looking for work, it’s worth reminding ourselves that not every well-paying job requires a college education. In fact, it wasn’t all that long ago when people went into professional trades like plumbing, electrical work, automotive repair, or carpentry and were clothed with at least some degree of respect. Today, a high school student who said they’d rather go into a professional trade instead of spending four years in college is likely to be told their making the “wrong choice,” even though they could end up making more money than some of their peers who did go to college (try to hire a plumber recently?). While college education seems to get an over-inflated sense of importance, the professional trades seem to have been unduly denigrated. That’s one of the reasons people like Bailey are finding it hard to fill positions.

Jazz Shaw passes along a personal anecdote that emphasizes this point:

Right in my neighborhood there is the son of one of my neighbors who finished high school several years back and went into an apprenticeship and technical school training program for heating and air conditioning. Within six months of graduating high school he had a secure, full time job which is bringing in some seriously good pay and benefits. Yes, the job involves hard work, finds him coming home covered in dirt and dust, and he frequently has to deal with irate, if not panicking homeowners. But he had no outstanding debt and at the age of 25 was already purchasing his first home. As his father tells it, he got a terrific rate on it, putting down a very substantial down payment.

The point is, there is still blue collar work out there to be done. And unlike many white collar jobs, a lot of it will never be able to be outsourced to other countries, as so often happens to computer programming jobs and others in related fields. Nobody is going to be able to log in to “the cloud” from Brazil and dig a new foundation for your home, wire it up, install the plumbing or put on a new roof. Those jobs will remain here at home.

Indeed they will, and unless we end up creating a technological society where robots build houses and the plumbing, electricity, and automobiles never have to be repaired, they are likely to remain here for a long, long time. It strikes me that this points to an alternative career path not only for people who are sent off to college but might not exactly be a good fit for it, but also those people who graduate High School, or drop out, and then wander aimlessly in dead-end retail jobs. There’s a lot more value and dignity in learning a trade, it would seem, than in stocking shelves or directing people to where the sales rack at Old Navy happens to be. We need the workers, they need the jobs, it seems like the perfect fit.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Education
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed for too young in July 2021.

Comments

  1. John Peabody says:

    It is true that these journeyman jobs are overlooked. It is a common theme these days to always, at all times, praise teachers “You can read? Thank a teacher”. To wish I’d like add: “You took a shower today? Thank a plumber!” These critical crafts (you’re durn tootin’ they’re critical, unless your’re a former OWS’er) affect our lives from cradle to grave. When you come down to it, pretty much anyone can teach to their own children, but heaven help us if we give plumber’s tools to America.

  2. Gustopher says:

    The rest of the article is unfortunately behind the WSJ paywall, but I think I think the general point is made

    I don’t think it is. This might well be the employer not wanting to pay decent wages, and thus being unable to attract qualified candidates, or the employer requiring someone with 5 years experience working with a BZ-128 Drill Press and not being willing to retrain people who have worked with other drill presses.

    The meat of the article is behind the pay wall, with only a pretty vague and meaningless teaser to some anecdote available. It means nothing, other than what you read into it.

  3. legion says:

    but for most Americans the idea of picking up and moving half way across the country isn’t an easy one to contemplate simply because of all the complications involved in family, personal relationships. and other obligations.

    That’s not the problem – or at least it’s not a “new” problem. The “new” problem is that moving across the country for a job simply isn’t possible for a large percentage of the populace anymore. They can’t sell the house they’re currently in, and even if they could, they might not be able to get an affordable mortgage on something to live in at the new location. As Gustopher notes, it depends on what sort of relocation assistance, etc, the employer is willing to provide, and those details aren’t reported here…

  4. legion,

    Not an unfair point, and really the broader one I was trying to make there.

    In any case, relocation assistance isn’t exactly common for beginning level jobs, even at the skilled job level so it’s hard to imagine that happening.

  5. Brett says:

    I’ll second the “finding and relocation” issues. You can try to spread the word about your available positions, but even sites like Monster and Careerbuilders don’t help unless potential job candidates are actually looking for jobs outside of their local area.*

    * Speaking of which . . . what is a good way to get a job in another state? Speaking as a young person who has lived in the same area for my entire life, looking potentially for a higher job out of state?

  6. Moosebreath says:

    Kevin Drum has a response to this article.

    His conclusion: “So here’s the story. Union Pacific is offering $48,000 per year for skilled, highly specialized, journeyman work that’s physically grueling and requires workers to be away from home about half of each month. The competition is offering 50% more, but not only is UP not willing to increase their starting wage, they’re so certain they can fill all their positions that they make qualified candidates pay for their own aptitude test. And despite all this, they filled all 24 of their positions in ten hiring sessions.

    It doesn’t sound to me like there’s a huge shortage of qualified workers here. It sounds to me like Union Pacific is whining about the fact that it took them all of ten hiring sessions to fill their quota even though this is a really tough job and they aren’t paying market rates for workers. It’s as if they think that actually having to make a modest effort to attract job candidates is an inversion of the natural order or something. Speaking for myself, I think I’ll hold off on breaking out the violins.”

  7. john personna says:

    @Moosebreath:

    Yes. Drum did the critical reading on this one. Recommended.

    (Pay for your own qualification exam, lol.)

  8. James H says:

    It’s really too bad that blue-collar jobs don’t get as much respect as they used to.

    Once upon a time, the lawyers and the accountants might have looked down their nose a little bit at the plumbers and the electricians, but the lawyers and accountants had another word for those blue-collar folks: clients.

  9. ponce says:

    Golly gosh, maybe if the Republicans hadn’t worked so hard to destroy America’s unions these kinds of blue collar jobs would have plenty of qualified applicants.

    For Republicans to be whining about it now is…exactly what you’d expect from the people who’d vote for Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich.

  10. legion says:

    @Doug Mataconis: True. And in an era where companies are looking for more specific technical skills, they’re going to have to be the ones to adapt – offering training for people who are “close but not exact” matches, or relocation for exact matches. As Kevin Drum (via Moosebreath) notes, the companies are going to have to actually put some effort of their own into this.

  11. Hey Norm says:

    Nice to see someone…Drum…doing a critical reading.
    Laying pipe and banging nails are admirable trades…but housing starts are still in the dumps…which is of concern because construction usually helps lead us out of recessions.
    On a related topic…Black Friday sales were strong again…pre Bush Contraction strong. Maybe demand is coming back. That’s what we need…DEMAND.

  12. Herb says:

    “just two people she had invited to interviews, winnowed from an initial group of nearly five dozen applicants.”

    I think this is the problem. “Special skills” aside, you have 60 applicants and only 2 are qualified? The other 58 are basically unemployable? I call bull.

    Surely someone already employed by UP already has the necessary skills, so they can transfer to this job and the newbie can transfer into the other one. It’s called management.

  13. Drew says:

    As an owner and operator of businesses I’d echo the notion that finding good people is hard. Warm bodies, easy. Good people, hard. Of any educational level.

    As for relocation. Anyone taken a look at the oil shale business in N Dakota, PA and NY?

    Anyone remember “Go West, young man?”

  14. Liberty60 says:

    @Hey Norm:
    Your thesis is incorrect.
    By your logic, consumers would then be producing jobs with their money.

    But as it has been clearly explained in the Norquist Catechism, only rich people and corporations are capable of producing jobs. This is why they are referred to as “Producers” or Job Creators”.

    And as to the original post, it has also been proven that if only the workers willing to work for less money, the jobs would appear.

    Basically Norm, you need to reverse your logic diagram.

    Begin with “Lower Taxes and Lower Wages”, and work towards “what problem can be solved by these?”

  15. c.red says:

    One of the early commentors at Drum’s place had the perfect response to this –

    There is no shortage of skilled workers, just a shortage of skilled workers who will work for s**t wages.

    Telmea Story 10:09pm

  16. Liberty60 says:

    @Drew:

    I recall when the national discussion was about Wall Street bonuses, it was patiently explained to us dunderheads that if a company wants to attract top drawer talent, it has to pay top drawer compensation.
    You might want to reconsider your compensation package, in order to enlarge the pool.

    It was also clarified to us that vilifying employees like Jaime Dimon and John Fund was counterproductive, that they would simply “go Galt” and refuse to provide their productive talents.
    You should take this to heart and try to avoid hurting the feelings of your employees, lest they leave you without their labor.

    You might try reading the Wall Street Journal sometime- this is where I gleaned all this helpful business advice.

  17. Gustopher says:

    @Moosebreath: Pretty much what I expected. Not a shortage of workers, a shortage of workers desperate enough to work for sh.t wages, and even then, Union Pacific found their desperate workers.

    And, when jobs elsewhere are available, I hope those desperate workers are the first to leave Union Pacific.

  18. Anon says:

    The last thing that I want, though, is some high-school drop-out trying to fix my plumbing. These jobs pay well, and require competency to do well. For example, recently I had my hot water heater replaced. As part of that step, the pipe needs to be drained, which is done by opening a faucet to hot water. It never seemed to finish draining, however. I tried to suggest to the plumber that he had waited way too long, and that something else must be happening. The something else that I suggested was that since the faucet was one of those single-handled types, it might be leaking (and siphoning) water from the cold pipe (which was not shut-off at the main valve) back down the hot pipe into the basement, where he was trying to drain it.

    He didn’t seem to get this. Finally, I just suggested shutting off the main water valve. He was skeptical, but good-natured so he did it anyway. After that, the pipe stopped trickling, confirming my suspicions, but he still didn’t seem to get it.

    Do these jobs require college? No, but they do require the ability to think critically and logically.

  19. Hey Norm says:

    I have to say that I would not work for someone as well informed and open-minded as Drew.

  20. Hey Norm says:

    Even if it was for sh*t wages.

  21. Hey Norm says:

    BTW….I wouldn’t work for Eric or Jan either.

  22. de stijl says:

    Finding good people in management is hard. Warm bodies in management, easy. Good people in management, hard. Of any educational level. Especially if they have an MBA.

  23. legion says:

    @Liberty60:

    Begin with “Lower Taxes and Lower Wages”, and work towards “what problem can be solved by these?”

    I’ll take “Landed Gentry” for $5 Trillion, Alex.

  24. rjs says:

    @Hey Norm:

    all that demand will accomplish is a handful more jobs for the chinese…

  25. sam says:

    Kevin quotes this from the WSJ piece:

    Ms. Bailey faced more stiff competition at a job fair the next day, because then she was up against several other employers looking for the same sort skilled people as she was. “Make $70,000 – $80,000 the first year with FULL BENEFITS,” read a sign at a booth right across from Ms. Bailey’s at the job fair, put on by the U.S. Army in Fort Carson, Colo., largely to help departing soldiers ease back to civilian life.

    Small wonder, to me, anyway, that she faced empty chairs: “With minutes to go, the folding chairs sat empty. ‘I don’t think they’re going to show,’ Ms. Bailey said, pacing in the basement room.” Perhaps they were at the booth across the way.

  26. anjin-san says:

    .I wouldn’t work for Eric or Jan either.

    Come on now. Jan has told us several times now how satisfied her employees are, and how much they respect and admire her. What more could you possibly want?

  27. superdestroyer says:

    @Moosebreath:

    This was covered on NPR. companies are looking for “ringers” who fit the job description exactly. Human Resources are letting managers ask for too much in an employee. Thus, jobs that harder to fill than need be.

    There is also the discussion of how computer-based screening of applicants is eliminating all of the applicants. Of course, the flip side is that Monster and career builder lets everyone apply for every job.

  28. Bilejones says:

    “Bailey, for example, is looking to higher people in the Denver area”

    or perhaps she’s looking just to give a job to lower people

  29. de stijl says:

    @Bilejones:

    Bailey, for example, is looking to higher people in the Denver area.

    Hah!

    Maybe they should start interviewing UC Boulder students.

  30. MarkedMan says:

    Doug? How about a response to what Kevin Drum found when he read the article? Doesn’t that change the meaning of UP’s experience? And since you based your premise on what you thought the article said, does this change your opinion?

    And finally, given that the WSJ put the misleading lede in front of the firewall and put all the relevant detail in the back, what do you think about the WSJ since Rupert Murdoch bought it?

  31. anjin-san says:

    Biggest Black Friday ever, monster Cyber Monday and the DOW up about 300 points. Not a peep about that.

    And here we are discussing an utterly bogus story in the Journal.

    Mission accomplished Rupert.

  32. Hey Norm says:

    @ anjin-san…
    The UP story, when you ignore the facts, allows for a negative story re: the economy…and by extension Obama…and an alleged lack of qualified employees allows for bashing education…all libertarian wet-dreams.
    Recovering DEMAND doesn’t accomplish any of those partisan goals.

  33. Scott says:

    There is another reason this phenomenon may be going on. It used to be that corporations had extensive in-house training and that they planned to employ people for longer periods of time. Today, they want people already trained and they expect people to move on (voluntarily or involuntarily) after a couple of years. There is a fundamental shift in the relationship between employers and employees. There used to be two-way loyalty; now there is none.

  34. john personna says:

    @Hey Norm:

    Education is not exactly the same as Public Education or Higher Education, nor certainly Public, Higher, Education.

  35. mantis says:

    A single employer complains about not being able to hire skilled workers at wages well below market for those skills, and a variety of commenters immediately shout this is evidence that college is for suckers. Of course, said commenters, at least in the case of Doug Mataconis, hold several college degrees.

    I’m starting to think this is less about helpful advice for would-be job seekers or potential college students, and more about discouraging competition for jobs folks like Doug would like to keep for themselves. Or maybe they just realize that lack of knowledge is a virtue in Wingnuttia, and they are embarrassed by the degrees they hold.

    It’s ok, fellas. A college degree is not a mark of shame. A university education isn’t for everyone, but it’s still a good thing for many.

  36. Jib says:

    Come on Doug, this is basic supply and demand. If you under pay, you get shortages. Over pay, you get a surplus. Want more qualified people than you can ever possible hire? Pay the most of any company competing for the labor.

    Basic Econ 101 and the WSJ damn sure knows it. Of course the WSJ is not an honest info broker. CEO’s making record income? It is the Free Market At Work! God Bless America! Working stiffs start making more money after a decade of stagnate wages? It is because of that damn socialist in the White House.

  37. MarkedMan says:

    Doug, this is why I try to avoid your posts on this site, and regret clicking on this one. You made a post based upon a partial reading of an article and used it to support one of your basic premises. That portion turned out to misleading to the point of inaccuracy, as was pointed out numerous times in the comments section here. Yet, two days later, you still haven’t addressed the issue.

  38. de stijl says:

    @MarkedMan:

    Confirmation bias is a harsh mistress.

    And Doug has a big, bad case of it.

  39. grumpy realist says:

    Eh, no different from the physics postdoc offers that require someone skilled in AFM work using a Dimension….

    What’s silly is how picky companies are about hiring the Exact Right Individual….and then whine because no one fits into their extremely cramped little pigeon-hole. Tiny violin indeed.