Job openings that are hard to fill in the midst of high unemployment reveal fundamental failings.
The monthly reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reveal this apparent ongoing anomaly: The unemployment rate remains high, and total employment down, but employers also report large numbers of jobs going unfilled because of a lack of qualified applicants.
These open jobs run in the 500,000 range amid some 12.7 million unemployed and underemployed people as well as discouraged workers.
These unfilled jobs are spread across the economy, but the problem is especially pronounced in skilled manufacturing. Moreover, private sources list higher numbers, with the National Association of Manufacturers citing some 600,000 openings in its sector alone.
Just what is going on?
Some economists, including Narayana Kocherlakota, president of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve, argue that we have an unusually high level of structural rather than cyclical unemployment right now. In other words, people are out of jobs because of fundamental, long-term changes in the structure of the economy rather than downsizing because of a slack economy.
This view is highly disputed by many other economists. It certainly is true for residential construction, where we were in an unsustainable boom. It may be decades before we need to crank out as many new houses per year as we were in the first five years of this century.
However, many of the sectors with unfilled jobs are not ones that have experienced dramatic growth. Manufacturing is holding its own in terms of value of output, but as a proportion of total jobs, it has shrunk for decades. Here the problem existed well before the recession and has not been solved by it. The question then becomes knottier: If good jobs in some sectors have been available over a longer term, why arent market forces motivating people to get the qualifications to fill them?
Perhaps they are, some might say. It takes time to retrain a sheet-rock finisher to program CAD-CAM metal turning machines. The problem eventually will solve itself.
Perhaps. But there also is the possibility that our institutions and culture undermine our economy's ability to train and retrain workers optimally. Indeed, given that the problem seems most-accentuated in male-dominated skilled trades, it may be that we are failing at the most difficult challenge facing any society as phrased by an anthropologist whose name is now lost to my memory managing the 15- to 35-year-old males.
Think about it. Think about the physical strength, the restless energy and the risk-taking mind-set of young men who are seas of raging hormones 365 days a year. Channeled into the right uses, it can produce good for a society. Abandoned to impulse, it is often expressed as war-making and crime.
A successful society has to develop cultural mores together with social and political institutions that motivate young men to expend their energy in productive ways. There are many ways this cat can be skinned, but there is much evidence we are no longer doing it well in our country.
In the 16- to 25-year-old cohort, men have higher unemployment rates than women, together with lower, and often dropping, educational achievements. More women in any age are now enrolled in college and have higher graduation rates. A high proportion of young men have criminal records.
Is the fact that good jobs are available while young men are not being trained to fill them proof positive of societal failure? Perhaps not, but we need to think about why this seems to be occurring.
It might be that we just have the wrong mix of vocational versus academic schools within a basically sound overall structure.
It also may be the case, however, that there are flaws in the basic structure. Our system assumes that all students should pursue a common curriculum from kindergarten through the 12th grade.
In European countries like Germany and Switzerland, it is generally accepted that at age 14 or 15, a significant number of youths should start spending part of each week in apprenticeship programs.
Each approach has advantages and disadvantages. Each comes laden with cultural values. Indeed, these values may be so important that it is impossible for the United States to become more like Germany or for Germany to become more like our country. But we should at least talk about it.
Edward Lotterman teaches and writes in St. Paul, Minn. Write him at email@example.com.