Archive for the ‘Skills Gap’ category

Is Your State Overrated?

May 24, 2013

My penance (and your burden) for being an absent blogger over the past week or so is a longer post with extra graphics today.

A lot of people, including me, are accustomed to assessing the overall skill level of a state’s or a region’s workforce (and thus its potential to capture growing industries that rely on more highly educated workers) based largely on the percentage of the workforce with a college degree.  It is simple, intuitive,  and more than a  little lazy.  It is also becoming a  less useful indicator of the supply of labor that is in demand by businesses.   Populations with higher levels of educational attainment confer a lot of benefits on a state or region but today, having a high percentage of a state’s or region’s population with at least a BA degree probably says as much about the state’s political and cultural sensibilities (as well is its “demand” for services rather than its “need” for services but that is another post)  than it does about its economic performance and potential.

The sense of self-satisfaction we in New England and in New Hampshire enjoy about  having a population with among the highest levels of educational attainment in the country is palpable, but the reality is that more states are increasing their levels of educational attainment and New England and the Northeast stand-out far less than in the past.  Moreover, in an economy that is increasingly rewarding particular skills and degrees more  than  just high educational attainment, it is not as clear that much of the region still has an edge  on the one resource that  it has that is always in demand – talent.

Much of New England and the Northeast has a high percentage of its adult population with a four-year college degree or higher (see chart below).

% With BA or Higher

Just looking at levels of educational attainment tells only part of the story.  I can’t blog for too long without talking about the “skills-gap”  so here goes.  Much of the demand for college-trained labor is in fields that require scientific, technical, engineering,  or mathematical (STEM) skills and degrees.  The percentage of a state’s population with a BA or higher degree tells a lot about the availability of STEM skills but for a number of states it tells a lot less.  I calculated the percentage of a state’s population with a STEM degree (based on first college degree earned) and included it above as the dark blue portion of the bar graph.  The official listing of STEM fields is maintained, surprisingly, by the Dept. of Homeland Security ( I categorized 171 college degrees into STEM and non-STEM degrees and I think my listing is close but not a perfect match).  If you compare  the percentage of the population with a four-year or higher STEM degree (chart below) with the percentage of the population with a BA degree or higher (chart above) it shows a large change in the relative rankings of a number of states, and a some in New England in particular.

% with STEM degrees

The final chart makes just that comparison, it shows the change in ranking  between a state’s position on the percentage of its adult working population with at least a BA degree and the percentage of its population with a STEM degree.  The chart highlights states that may be over and underrated on the skill level (at least skills in demand) of their workforce.   Vermont stands out as having the biggest drop in rankings between the percentage of its population with at least a BA degree and its ranking on the percentage of the population with a STEM degree.  Maine also fares poorly.  But New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut also drop in rankings when measuring “talent in-demand” among the workforce.  Only Massachusetts does not  drop in ranking  ( it is ranked number one on both measures so there is no way it could show anything but a drop in relative rankings).   On the other hand, states that are often derided by Northeastern “elites”, such as Texas, Arizona, Florida and Alabama  have a smaller percentage of college-trained labor but more of them (on a percentage basis) are trained in the STEM fields most in demand.  Still, they  don’t have as high a percentage of their adult populations with a STEM degree as do some New England and some other states, but with population and migration trends, and as more individuals with those skills and more companies that want access to them agglomerate in those states, how long before some take the lead in “talent”?   I don’t think Massachusetts has as much to worry about as do other states in  New England because of their unique higher-education assets.  The question for the rest of us is, can we continue to “beggar our neighbor” and benefit from the Bay State’s ability to churn-out and attract individuals with the degrees and skills in demand?

over and under rated states

As New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut show, having a lot of “talent” in your workforce doesn’t guarantee strong economic growth.  The business, political, environmental, and even cultural and social climates also play an important role in promoting prosperity.  I look at states with a relatively higher  percentage of their college trained workforces  in STEM fields as “up-and-comers.”   Most don’t have the history of high educational attainment in their populations that New England does, so their overall ranking on educational attainment tends to be lower.  Some, like Texas and Arizona also have had a large influx of individuals with traditionally lower levels of educational attainment.  Nevertheless, they are accumulating and growing a larger portion of the nation’s “talent” in STEM fields and over the long-haul, that is the biggest threat to New England’s most valuable and most in-demand resource, and thus the biggest threat to its prosperity.

Give Me Your Huddled, Talented Masses

April 19, 2013

This is a week that reminds us of how many people from around the world  want to harm the U.S.  and just how easy it can be.  This is a day when a daughter who was supposed to be coming home for the weekend  is unable to leave her apartment, catch the “T”  or even get a cab to North or South Station where no trains or buses are leaving the city of Boston anyway.  For me at least, its not an easy time to be rationale and analytical.  That is precisely why this is an especially good afternoon to highlight, in one small way, how much the presence in the U.S. of individuals from the rest of the world contributes to our economy, communities, and society.

A lot of attention is focused on the relative inability of the U.S. to produce enough individuals with the education and training needed to fill critical  openings in scientific, technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.  Why that is is the subject for another (or many other) posts.  There aren’t enough individuals in this country with STEM degrees to meet existing demand according to businesses that employ them.  Looking at unemployment rates for individuals with science, tech, engineering and math degrees seems to validate that belief.   But the U.S. would be even further from meeting the demand if it were not able to tap a global labor market.

I’ve been looking at trends that affect recent college graduates so I will focus on the importance of foreign-born individuals to the supply of skilled workers among recent college graduates and younger workers in the U.S..  I sorted data on individuals in the U.S. workforce,  age 24-29, with a Bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the college major of their first college degree, and then by the percentage of individuals in each major that were foreign-born.  The results are striking.  Overall, about 13.6 percent of all workers age 24-29, with at least a Bachelor’s, are foreign-born.  However, the percentage in STEM majors is dramatically higher, comprising  30, 40, to as much as 50 percent of young people and recent graduates in some major fields of study.  By far, the majors with the highest percentage of individuals that are foreign-born are STEM majors.

Foreign Born STEM Grads

The data make clear how important the rest of the world is, and will continue to be, in meeting our economy’s demand for skilled workers.  On an afternoon, in a day, during a week, like this one, data doesn’t have much influence on our thoughts or maybe just not on mine, and that is all the more reason to look closely at it.

What Do Help Wanted Ads Say About the “Skills Gap”?

April 18, 2013

It has been quite a while since I wrote about some of my favorite topics, the “skills gap” and occupational supply and demand.  But since there are recent media reports about the issue and more and new or renewed groups in NH looking to influence the debates and discussions on the issue, let me once again add my $.02.

I’ve made the plea for empirical rather than anecdotal or ideological evidence on the issue and produced a little evidence myself that both points to a skills gap as a contributor to slower than desired employment growth as well as evidence that suggests the issue may not be as prominent an explanation for slower job growth as some believe.  I’ve also noted the larger economic policy debate that engulfs the skills gap issue.  The data I’ve presented in this blog only hints at  answers to the fundamental question of whether slower job growth is more of a problem of labor supply (the number and/or quality available workers with the education, skills and training desitred by employers), or one more of labor demand (not enough employers looking to hire qualified, educated and skilled workers in NH).  I think the charts below  again provide some clues to labor supply and demand trends in NH and also illustrate some bigger trends in the NH economy.

The first chart most directly addresses the skills gap issue.  It shows that in terms of broad occupational groupings, professional and technical job openings are the largest component of on-line help wanted advertisements in NH.  Because these tend to be among the most-skilled and highest-paying jobs we assume that if there were a sufficient supply of labor then job growth in the industries that most employee these occupations would be relatively strong.  In fact, one  industry grouping – business and professional services  – employs a lot of professional and technical occupations and it is growing almost twice as fast as is overall private sector employment in NH.

The crux of the skills gap issue is this: “would a larger or better qualified supply of individuals in these occupations result in faster job growth in NH, or are there other or complimentary factors that also need to contribute to faster growth?”   How you define the problem of slower job growth also largely defines the range of your solutions. Increasingly, and I think somewhat disappointingly,  it also seems to define your ideology (if you have one).

March 2013 HW

The chart  below is less sanguine.  It shows that compared to the same month in 2012, March 2013 help wanted ads in NH for professional and technical ads declined by more than 10 percent.  One month isn’t a trend but recent months have shown more weakness than strength in this indicator.  The chart also shows that the largest improvements in labor demand are not among the most skilled occupations, although changes in the occupational make-up of manufacturing industries makes it increasingly likely that production workers will  have higher levels of education, training and skills.

Pct Change in HW in March

 

It Seems You Can’t Turn White Collars Blue

January 8, 2013

Two contradictory trends are occurring in NH’s labor market and as Ricky Ricardo would say “somebody’s got some splaining to do”.   I see no other hands up in the room so I will take a brief stab at it.  The chart below shows that help wanted ads in NH rose modestly this year but the rate of employment growth in the state has been declining.

Help wanted and Emp Growth iin NH

It is easy to rest things on, and to take things off, the top of a flat head so here are a few off the top of mine that could be influencing these trends: 1) It could be that more jobs are being advertised in NH but are for companies with multiple locations – including NH and nearby states (I think this is not likely to be having much affect), 2) advertised jobs are not being filled because there are not enough applicants companies want to hire – “the skills gap” again (I think this is significant based on conversations I’ve had with companies), 3) the job growth numbers in NH could be revised upward with the upcoming benchmark revisions (I think this is likely but it may not be as significant as I thought a few months ago).

Regular readers know I write too often about the skills gap.  I like the issue because it gets at so many issues of fundamental importance to the future of NH’s and the nation’s economy – education and training, k-12 and post-secondary education, young people and their guidance and direction etc.  The skills gap is most often associated with very skilled scientific and technical occupations but in NH at least, any skills gap may be more pronounced in production and skilled “blue collar” occupations.  Based on the volume of  help wanted advertising in the state since the recession, the demand for those occupations has increased significantly compared to management, financial, business, technical and scientific occupations.

Help Wanted by Occup Since Recession

Despite the large percentage increase in help wanted ads in production and skilled blue collar occupations, employment in industries that employ those occupations has grown little.  It may be that there is a lot of ‘churning” in those industries (some businesses hiring and some contracting) resulting in little net employment gain but the anecdotal evidence (I am reluctant to rely on such evidence but it is the best we have at the moment) is that many businesses who would hire production and skilled, blue collar workers are unable to find individuals to fill their positions.

It has been a relatively recent (over the last several decades) transition for NH to a more technology intensive economy that relies less on production and skilled, blue collar labor.  Once the core of the NH economy it has been a long while since NH was seen a a land of opportunity for those who worked with machines and tools (other than just  computers) and once you have moved on  it can be very hard to go back – even when there is a reward for doing so.

The Most Important Ideological Debate of 2013

January 2, 2013

It is hard to fix a problem that you don’t  know you have.  That seems to be the case in NH where I still hear “NH has fared better than most states since the recession.”  I disagree and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is on my side.   Just before Christmas the Bureau of Labor Statistics issued its  monthly report on November employment and unemployment in  the 50 states.  Once again the news was not good for New Hampshire.  Most media reports chose to report that NH’s unemployment rate dropped slightly during the month without noting that the number of jobs located in the state declined in November (John Nolan of the Foster’s Daily Democrat and Rochester Times was a notable exception).

Nov 2011 to Nov 2012 Job Growth

Compared to employment in November 0f 2011,  November 2012 employment in NH was lower by1,700 on a seasonally adjusted basis and lower by 2,500 on a not seasonally adjusted basis.  Only five states have fewer jobs located in their state in November of 2012 than they had in November of 2011.  As I have suggested before, NH’s job growth goes a long way toward explaining why the state’s housing market isn’t seeing the same recovery in prices that appears to be occurring in many other states.

50 state Job Growth Nov 11 to Nov 12

I am hoping that in 2013 policymakers focus much of their debates (ideological or otherwise) on policies that strengthen the NH economy.  I hope that most of those debates encourage the introduction of solid empirical evidence in support or opposition to any proposals (I tried last year but could not find any data or methodology to determine the impact that allowing pistol duels in the statehouse would have on job growth) and are absent the vitriol and ad hominems that characterized so many debates last year.  Policies that can influence job growth can easily accommodate the needs of the two-party system to make the  sort of ideological arguments and distinctions that they feel are needed to influence elections.

Whether job growth is slower now than in the past because employers are not willing to add additional workers (supply side arguments) or because they are not able to find enough or enough qualified workers  (the human capital and “skills gap” argument) is among the most important issues to understand in setting both national and state-level economic policies.  If employers are unwilling to add employees that are readily available,  then the efforts to spur job growth focus more on factors affecting businesses (tax rates, regulations, costs etc.).  If job growth is constrained because employers are unable to find enough or enough qualified workers to fill open positions, then the focus of efforts to spur job growth will be more effective if they look to influence demographic trends, increase the skills of the labor force, and/or better match the skills of workers  to the needs of employers.  In reality this is not an either or question because inadequate attention to the needs of either employers or the workforce will produce sub-optimal economic growth. I’ve tried in this blog to introduce some evidence related to the human capital argument for job growth trends and I will bring some supply side evidence in the future as well.
Ideological or not, respectful and civil or not, recent trends in NH’s job growth and the implications for future growth have to be the first and most important policy debate of 2013.

Hiring by Age: More Evidence of a Skills Gap?

December 10, 2012

I know its a tough labor market for young people and recent college grads, but they still represented a larger portion of new hires in NH in 2011 than would be expected based on the percentage of employment by age in the state.  The chart below shows the age distribution of  employment in NH in 2011 along with the percentage of new hires in the state by age group.   Although job growth has been slow this recovery, the chart still shows that among those who have been hired for a new job (that is the hiring that is not a “call back” of a previously laid-off worker), younger workers make up a disproportionate number of the new hires.

Emp by age

This could be more evidence of, as well as a subset of,  the “skills gap” debate.  Many employers complain that the skills that young workers and recent grads posses don’t match their needs, and this is true for many occupations, but what this data also seems to suggest is that the mismatch between the demands of employers and those seeking work among the existing workforce is even greater than that for younger workers and new entrants to the labor force.  It suggests a bigger problem than just getting kids into the right majors and training programs (although that is a big part of it).  It points to a larger problem of a fundamental change in the types of occupations in demand (or the skills required of the same occupations) as well as a “twist” in the labor market that results in differences in the occupational make-up of industries.  It is a much more difficult , slower, and likely painful process to have the existing workforce adapt to these changes in order to increase their employment prospects than it is to begin with the next generation of workers, although both will challenge future employment and economic growth for some time.

Of course it is possible that employers just prefer younger and perhaps less expensive workers and that is what accounts for their outsized share of recent new hires.  Or it could be a function of the type of industries that were hiring in 2011 (I will be examining this hypothesis).  It may be more comforting to view labor market trends from those perspectives but it won’t get us any closer to taking the personal and policy actions necessary to create greater alignment between the skills of our workforce and the skills needed for a more prosperous economy.

Job Growth May Depend on Narrowing the “Skills Gap”

November 21, 2012

A quick review:  The “skills gap” explanation for slower employment growth this recovery posits that there are large numbers of jobs waiting to be filled but hiring is sub-par after the recession because of a lack of qualified candidates to fill those positions.  Twice I have presented some evidence on the issue, here and here.  Most of the concern and evidence about the existence of a skills gap addresses very high-skill technical, scientific, computer, and engineering occupations because our nation, and by extension our state, seem to perpetually be unable to produce enough individuals in those fields to satisfy industry demand.  As  a result we “import” a lot of that talent from foreign countries (more about this – I promise – in a future post).  There is some evidence of this in NH.  As the chart below shows, professional, scientific, and technology occupations are the largest,  broad category of help wanted ads in the state.  But they have also evidenced the smallest increase (a decrease actually) since the recession.  There is still a significant demand but it may be that an inability to find qualified applicants has companies in need of those occupations from considering more hiring in the Granite State.  A quick review of data for Massachusetts shows that demand for professional, scientific and technical occupations has increased during the same time period.

But  more direct evidence of a skills gap comes from the demand for construction and production workers.  I am especially interested in the potential skills gap for production workers.  The chart above shows that demand for construction, production, and transportation workers has increased significantly since the recession.  Although still a much smaller category of help-wanted ads than professional and technical jobs, the increased demand is consistent with anecdotal evidence I heard this week at a roundtable discussion of the Seacoast economy.  At that discussion, representatives from industry, higher education, and economic development organizations cited specific examples of companies frustrated at their ability to hire skilled production workers.   Some are forming partnerships with NH’s community college system to increase the supply of needed occupations.  Those initiatives show promise and I hope the state’s four-year colleges and universities develop more partnerships to address the skills gap in professional, scientific and technical occupations as well because, increasingly, job growth in NH appears to depend on it.


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