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Desperately Seeking Skilled Workers


By anyone's definition, the 1990s are booming. We've seen the longest and strongest bear market in history, low inflation and unemployment rates, and an unprecedented world-wide demand for American goods and services. But there is trouble in this economic paradise, generated in part by the spectacular growth that sparked the boom in the first place. The disturbing fact is that the country faces an increasing shortage of skilled labor in nearly every industry from technology to trucking.

Since the 1980s, workforce growth has slowed from 2.5 to 1.2 percent annually; it is expected to slow even more - to less than one percent - by the next century. That means fewer workers will be entering the job market just as the majority of baby boomers are retiring. It also means that the fierce competition among companies for top workers will only increase - not just in high-tech fields, but in almost every industry across the board.

Right now, for instance, there are three hundred thousand unfilled openings for truck drivers nationwide. In Louisiana, major shipbuilder Service Marine Industries is so short of skilled workers it pays applicants fifty dollars just to take a craft test and has hiked wages more than 30 percent over the past eighteen months. And many companies offer sizable referral bonuses to their employees.

But a sheer lack of employees is not the only problem. Equally critical is the lack of workers with twenty-first-century skills. Some older workers, in particular, have had a hard time making the transition from an industrial to an information-based economy. Yet it's not just long-time employees who find themselves outmoded and out of work; many young people just entering the job market are also unprepared for the demands of a technology-driven workplace. That starts to explain why there are currently 200,000 open positions in information technology, and why the semiconductor industry has 40,000 jobs it can't fill.

It seems the nation's colleges and universities, whose long suit has traditionally been a broad liberal arts education, are falling short when it comes to preparing students for today's jobs using technology. The number of Americans trained in computer science dropped 43 percent between 1986 and 1994, while the number of electrical engineering graduates fell 37 percent during the same period. That is one reason more and more companies are turning to on-the-job training and continuing education.

The Boeing Company is a case in point. In spite of a record number of employees and the recent acquisition of McDonnell Douglas, Boeing is having a hard time meeting the demand for airplanes. In an effort to attract qualified workers, the company is offering new hires three months' paid training, and existing workers full tuition reimbursement for any academic studies they want to pursue. Even a medical degree? No problem, says company spokesperson Cindy Glickert. Boeing believes that employees who learn outside the office are better equipped to learn on the job.

And the ability to learn on the job is exactly what companies should be looking for. It is as important to hire applicants with learning potential - that is, people who are flexible and can pick up new skills quickly - as it is to recruit workers who have job-related experience. It is also essential to understand cultural differences, since foreign-born candidates make up an increasingly large segment of the job pool. More than ever, employers are finding that it pays to focus on skills, not ethnicity or gender. As one CEO puts it, "You simply want the best people you can get."