Job openings reflect skills gap in US

September 23, 2016

The latest national labor data show there are nearly 6 million open jobs in the United States. This is up from 5.4 million last May and is the highest figure measured since the government began counting job openings in 2000.

While more job openings suggest employers are hiring, data also tell us employers are struggling to find the right people to hire. In this sense, a high number of job openings represents a growing problem in America: the skills gap.

We at the National Skills Coalition found the largest percentage of open jobs in the United States are middle-skill jobs, those requiring an education beyond a high school diploma but not a four-year degree. These jobs represent a current hiring deficit of 10 percent— an alarming figure when you’re dealing in jobs numbering in the millions. This is also true in Mississippi, where middle-skill jobs represent the majority of open positions (55 percent), yet Mississippi employers sometimes report they are not able to find sufficiently trained workers for these jobs.

State policymakers are interested in learning why employers cannot find skilled workers for open positions. They are seeking ways to identify these problems so state training programs, colleges and universities can address these challenges.

Many states lack the robust data needed to identify where education aligns with employment needs. Furthermore, many officials report that the data they do have is not organized in a way that clearly suggests solutions.

Mississippi is a leader in using data strategically for workforce development. By using data to show local workforce and training resources, Mississippi has successfully recruited Fortune 500 companies, such as Toyota, Nissan, Yokohama, and, most recently, Continental Tire, to locate manufacturing plants in the state.

Mississippi believes in the value of data. On Friday, I will be participating in the state’s inaugural data summit in Starkville, where policymakers and state leaders are coming together to talk about data and data tools. This data summit includes sessions on why and how to use data for economic development, policymaking and performance-based budgeting.

Even with data on the forefront, Mississippi policymakers — and leaders from other states — are still looking for more.

They are left with many questions, including:

  1. How many students are earning credentials, and in what fields?
  2. What programs and institutions work best for which people?
  3. Which occupations have skills gaps, and how many skilled workers do we need to fill them?

The solution rests in information and data sharing across existing programs. In collaboration with USA Funds and the J.P. Morgan Chase Foundation, the National Skills Coalition will launch the State Workforce and Education Alignment Project(SWEAP) data and tools. SWEAP provides state policymakers with metrics to inform and develop policies that align education programs with employers’ needs.

Here in Mississippi, in conjunction with the partnership of the State Longitudinal Data System known as LifeTracks, the State Workforce Investment Board, and other stakeholders, these SWEAP data tools will soon offer high-level, systemwide information that will be useful for state policymakers. These tools have different features, including dashboards with “pathway evaluators,” that show program performance and supply and demand reports — offering insight regarding employment statistics.

For example, policymakers can use the dashboards to identify programs that have strong student outcomes and warrant expansion, as well as ascertain which programs need improvement. Pathway evaluators show how people use a range of education and training programs to earn credentials and secure jobs. With this information in hand, state policymakers can create career pathways that offer the best employment and earnings outcomes for people with different skills. Finally, supply and demand reports show whether or not those people earning credentials are doing so in the needed fields to connect with open jobs, closing the skills gap. At Mississippi’s data summit Friday in Starkville, I will be discussing the new tools we are developing with state partners that will be housed in LifeTracks and available next year.

As we move further into the age of technology and data, we must always ground our advancements in their real-world applications. One good example is a career pathways mobile app under development in Mississippi to present high school students with a fun and engaging game-like introduction to different careers. Armed with these types of innovations and invaluable data, presented through a useful set of tools, we are confident that Mississippi leaders will soon set a new standard for how we, as a nation, best address the pressing skills gap.

Bryan Wilson is state policy director at National Skills Coalition. He will be presenting information on SWEAP at Mississippi’s inaugural data summit, "A Data Driven State: Advancing the Use of Data for a Bright Mississippi Future," on Friday.