Researchers at Iowa State University say the common complaint that companies in Iowa and elsewhere they can’t find enough skilled workers doesn’t seem to hold up. Liesl Eathington says they found several factors contributing to hiring challenges, but a widespread lack of skilled workers is not one.
“I think the take away from out study is that a lot of the evidence that’s being thrown to substantiate that there’s a skills gap, we think is pretty flimsy, because we really don’t have a lot of good data to describe the skills of workers. And we’re mostly stuck with rating them on the terms of their educational attainment. And that really isn’t descriptive enough,” Eathington says. “Using the data available to us, we just couldn’t find a systematic shortage of middle-skilled or middle-educated workers in Iowa or nationwide.”
Eathington says it seems to be more of a problem of figuring out what businesses are really looking for in workers. “What our research concluded was that we need to do a lot better job of describing the particular skills that are needed and not just base it on secondary data. Even though the data are readily available, they are not very useful for policy purposes,” Eathington says.
There’s been a push to get more training for Iowans to fill the so-called gap. “The educational level that is most often talked about with the middle-skill gap debate is people with some college or associate degree. And we’re just not finding evidence that the number of those people in Iowa or in the nation is out of whack with what’s being demanded.
Eathington and fellow researcher Dave Swenson in the ISU Economics Department, found that the amount of money employers are willing to pay is a factor in the lack of workers. “Because if there was high demand for a kind of worker that wasn’t being met, wages should get bid up,” Eathington explains. “And then there should be a response to that by the supply — people would either move in or they would acquire the skills necessary to take advantage of that higher wage.”
Eathington says researchers have looked for evidence of the wages being bid up and haven’t found it. She says the urban-rural factor also impacts the issue in Iowa. “A lot of times we have trouble in some of our rural areas of getting people willing to live in these areas. Firms just simply can’t provide the wages that are competitive with urban areas,” according to Eathington. “And so that’s another part of it. We might kind of a rural-urban issue in Iowa.”
With the continued increase in technology, Eathington says firms may have higher expectations than what the workforce can immediately meet.
“It’s possible that some of the skills that are required are a lot less transferable from one firm to another. And so, maybe firms used to be able to just hire somebody and have them up to speed pretty quickly, that may not be the case any more,” Eathington says. “So, expectations about the level of the on-the-job training that may be required — those might have to change.”