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By Tom Robertson, MPR News 90.3 FM, Published March 09 2013

Minnesota study questions oft-cited ‘skills gap’

ST. PAUL – The so-called skills gap – the idea that some employers can’t find workers with the right training – is more complex than many have thought, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

The department released a study late last week showing that in nursing, industrial engineering and manufacturing production in Minnesota, many employers indeed have had difficulty filling positions – but often for reasons only partly attributable to lack of skilled workers.

Uncompetitive wages and undesirable locations or work shifts also contributed substantially to the problem, the study found. Researchers also suggested that electronic job applications that use key words to match applicants with jobs may not be working well.

DEED focused on three occupational groups in which employers say they struggle to find workers. Researchers interviewed about 200 Minnesota employers focusing on 1,500 job vacancies.

They found employers reported general hiring difficulty in 45 percent of those vacancies. But a lack of skills among applicants was the sole contributor to the difficulty in only a third of those cases. That represented only 15 percent of all openings.

“I think the results of this survey and a lot of other studies that are coming out on this issue suggest a much broader set of challenges and a much more complex set of issues than simply this lack of qualified candidates,” said Steve Hine, research director at DEED.

The study found that of the jobs requiring a high school diploma or less, nearly 60 percent were tough to fill. Those jobs are mostly in manufacturing.

One factor in that may be that many high schools have cut back on industrial technology training, Hine said.

Hine said there’s also a perception that manufacturing jobs have mostly gone overseas, making some prospective workers think that sector of the economy holds less career promise.

“We have seen manufacturing jobs in Minnesota drop by 25 percent over the last couple of decades,” Hine said. “In our career guidance information, we would suggest that career seekers look at areas in which we have seen or are projecting significant growth when they decide what their course of study is. So I think that manufacturing is going to have a difficult time convincing individuals that the industry is an area of opportunity.”

One manufacturing company that is clamoring for workers is Lakeland Mold in Brainerd’s industrial park. Workers there use high tech machines to fabricate molds for a wide range of plastic parts.

Lakeland employs about 85 people, and company officials say they would hire five more today if they could find the skills they need. That’s primarily computer-aided machinists or people with an aptitude for math and making things with their hands.

Human resources manager Steve Lackner said finding skilled employees is getting tougher, even though Lakeland pays a competitive wage. He thinks high schools haven’t encouraged kids to go into the industrial trades.

“Somewhere in the past, and I don’t know when it was, you started to look down on the trades, that was a bad place to go,” Lackner said. “To be successful you have to go to college. That’s not the case. There are good jobs, good wages, good livings in manufacturing. It’s no longer dirty, dark and dangerous.”

The so-called skills gap has had the attention of officials from the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system for several years. Mary Rothchild, who oversees work force development for MnSCU, said the agency has worked to create partnerships with employers to respond more quickly to their needs.

“What’s interesting to us is that while skills gap plays a role exclusively in a very small number, perhaps, we see that 87 percent of all vacancies have either exclusively a skills gap problem, or it’s a contributing factor to the difficulty that employers have in hiring for those positions,” Rothchild said. “So we think we’re on the right path with thinking about the implications of this kind of study for higher education.”

MnSCU joined with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce last spring and summer to host a series of work force assessment forums to hear the concerns of employers. Several community colleges are now building new manufacturing-related degree programs to meet some of those needs.

The DEED study is the first of its kind in the state. The agency plans to conduct the survey twice annually and is working on a second round of interviews for other occupations.