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Filling Jobs Is Only the Beginning

July 1, 1999
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As we go to press this month, the national unemployment rate is just 5.2 percent. In Orange County, California—the labor market that most affects our ability to fill jobs—the rate is an incredible 2.5 percent. I’ll let you imagine some of the candidates that we’ve interviewed.

Employment statistics have dominated the business headlines for months. For all practical purposes, we’re living in an era of full employment. Many experts argue that those who are without jobs at this point are unemployable—permanently outside the job market.

But even that’s beginning to change. Recent studies show single mothers and young African-American men—groups that never before have seen the real rewards of even our greatest prosperity—are entering the workforce in record numbers. Now comes news that even ex-convicts are being offered jobs. Sherwood Ross, a business writer for Reuters, reports that more than 400 companies are hiring through the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

All of this is good news. It means that the economy is continuing to grow, and that, at last, everyone in society may benefit from that growth. It also means that many previously unemployable people will get job training and experience, which will help alleviate the looming long-term labor shortage.

That’s if—and this is a big if—we do the right things now. We can’t simply extend the reach of our candidate sourcing efforts and then breathe a collective sigh of relief when jobs are filled. And yet that’s often what’s happening.

As people are brought into the workforce who have no job skills and no job experience, it’s a fact that most of them lack the skills they need to succeed. That seems logical, doesn’t it? What doesn’t seem logical is that expenditures on training are pretty flat.

Once again, we’re falling victim to our own propensity for short-term solutions. Fill the jobs and we’ll worry about the rest later. The problem is that in today’s business climate, "later" is never very long from now.

Much of what we’re seeing, I think, is a reflection of the belief that the current labor shortage will just go away sometime soon. It won’t. We’ll be much better off if we make a deliberate decision now to invest in training, development, communication, and more.

Part of our focus should be on what we’ve traditionally labeled as "soft skills," too. As Shari Caudron makes crystal clear in her story on emotional intelligence, it’s the soft skills that actually are better predictors of job success.

I realize that my suggestion is a lot like asking a driver to change his flat tire while the car is still zooming down the freeway. How are we to address such massive training when we’re still dealing with sexual harassment, new technologies and, yes, even employee sabotage?

The answer, I think, is to accept that we will reach some of our destinations later than we planned or than we may like. But if we don’t stop to address the issues, then we surely won’t ever get where we’re going. We can only drive with a flat tire for just so long before we are overrun or forced off the road. That moment is imminent.

Workforce, July 1999, Vol. 78, No. 7, p. 8.

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