Phys.org reported earlier this week on a soon-to-be published new study by Andrew Weaver of the University of Illinois and Paul Osterman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that takes a critical look at the claims of a skills shortages in the U.S. manufacturing sector.
The paper would appear to be a follow-up or expansion of a paper that Weaver and Osterman produced for the Economic Policy Institute in 2014.
In general, Weaver and Osterman find that U.S. manufacturers’ skills gap claims are overblown, and the most of time they are in fact able to hire the skilled workers they are looking for. But the paper is more nuanced than that. By looking more closely at the precise skills manufacturers are seeking, they were apparently able to identify the types of skills that, when in demand, are most closely associated with longer-term vacancies. What jumps out from their results is that the demand for higher-level math and reading skills is a much more significant predictor of long-term vacancies than other skills:
“What fits with conventional wisdom is higher-level math skills being predictive of having a higher level of long-term vacancies. The other predictive skill demand, surprisingly enough, is higher-level reading skills,” Weaver said. “This debate frequently gets framed as a pure science-, technology-, engineering- and math-skills shortage, but it turns out reading also is a robust predictor of longer-term hiring difficulty. It certainly gives a more nuanced picture of skill challenges in manufacturing, and it really cuts against many of the prevailing narratives about the American workforce.”
If true, this has important implications for adult education policy and the federal workforce system under WIOA, which in my experience is driven more often than not by an underlying assumption that math and literacy skills are essentially prerequisites for the attainment of the industry-specific and more technical skills that employers seek. In other words, while I know that there is an emphasis on program models that integrate both, there is a perception, on the ground, at least, that adult education essentially feeds the training system. That’s a bias that’s been baked into the system for some time. But what is suggested by this study is that the most urgent demand is for academic skills: workers who are highly skilled in math and reading, period. In other words, to put it simply, improving literacy (beyond even just basic literacy) would most directly address the skills gap (at least in manufacturing). Which in turn suggests, perhaps, a need for a greater emphasis in our workforce system in those skills—and perhaps an even greater challenge for adults in the manufacturing workforce with very low literacy to achieve not just greater proficiency but “higher-level” skills in both math and reading.
That’s my quick take. Take it with a grain of salt, as I haven’t had a chance to read the yet-to-be-released study, or even finish my first cup of coffee for the day. One thing missing from the Phys.org story is whether the paper includes any discussion about the degree to which wage stagnation has created an appearance of a gap (i.e. the workers are there, just unwilling to accept the wages being offered), but based on Weaver and Osterman’s earlier work on the skills gap, I would expect that it is.
Update, 4:30pm ET: Fixed some typos and grammatical errors that made it into the original post, which was rather hastily constructed this morning. I should remember to finish that cup of coffee before pressing “send.”