Sit in at any economic development conference in Wisconsin these days and you’re bound to hear talk about the “skills gap.”
The term is popular with employers who complain they can’t find enough qualified workers to fill open positions — despite a stubbornly high unemployment rate.
Earlier this month, a top executive with Marinette Marine Corp. warned that “manufacturing would cease to exist” in the state unless Wisconsin addressed its skilled worker shortage.
State officials — including Gov. Scott Walker — have jumped on the issue too, saying there are loads of great jobs out there if workers could improve their skills. The Legislature with near bipartisan support recently approved $15 million in grants to private-sector companies to train new workers and Walker wants to target some higher education funding to schools that will focus on teaching needed skills.
It all sounds plausible except for one thing: There may not be a major skills gap problem in the Wisconsin labor market.
A new analysis from the UW-Madison’s LaFollette School of Public Affairs released Thursday found there are enough tech school and college graduates for both the current and projected job openings in Wisconsin through 2020. It's the second study in the past year with similar findings.
The new report here did note some anecdotal evidence of a worker shortage — mainly for low-skill, low-paying jobs that require no post-secondary education — but little indication of a broader crisis.
In fact, the report found the weak job market in Wisconsin was actually forcing those with college degrees into jobs that once went to people with no education beyond high school. For example, about 60 percent of people employed today in bartending or retail clerking have some form of post-secondary education or training.
"People with high school degrees or less who could hold these jobs are being bumped even further down the job ladder, many into unemployment," says Robert Havemen, professor emeritus of public affairs and economics who guided four graduate students who researched the UW report.
The study analyzed the state labor supply by educational level and compared it to the projected number of openings for specific occupations considered in demand by the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.
It found a shortage of workers for some jobs requiring no post-secondary education but an excess number of people holding associate's, bachelor's and master's degrees for the projected number of job openings by DWD.
Any skills gap that could be found was mainly in computer science, information technology, human resources and middle- and high-school teachers.
"We hear directly from employers time and again that they can’t find the skilled workers they need, from advanced machinists to IT professionals," said DWD's John Dipko.
But a 2012 report from the UW-Milwaukee noted that “the consensus among top economists is that the skills gap is a myth.”
“High unemployment is mainly the result of a deficiency in aggregate demand and slow economic growth, not because workers lack the right education or skills,” said author Marc Levine of the school’s Center for Economic Development.
The only gap, Levine argues, is between the corporate desire “to secure cheap and docile labor” and workers’ desire for decent-paying jobs with benefits.
“The skills gap trope is a misguided effort to blame schools, training institutions and workers for the larger failures of macroeconomic policy and management strategy to create enough jobs for all who want to work,” he wrote.
Some critics have even said the skills gap claim is used by private companies who want to see taxpayers pick up the cost of training workers — a role that in the past has been done by the companies themselves.