Just how big is the skills gap in the American workforce? In some fields, such as health care, there are more than 1 million more openings than available workers—a significant shortfall in a field where it is hard to turn out trained workers quickly.
But crucially, our new analysis shows both the size and the cause of the gap depends on the specific occupation.
For new research sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, Burning Glass Technologies developed an innovative new model, comparing supply (using federal workforce statistics on separated workers) and demand (based on job postings collected by Burning Glass). This lets us calculate where there is a shortage of experienced workers, occupation by occupation and industry by industry. That’s the best way of understanding exactly the size of the problem.
There’s a debate over whether a skills gap exists at all. Employers routinely report their companies have difficulty finding skilled workers. Some economists argue that, if that were true, wages would be rising and employers would be investing more in training. Our research shows there are definitely shortages of workers—but the causes, and solutions, differ.
The Largest Skills Gaps in the Workforce
Several occupations we examined had severe worker shortages:
Healthcare Practitioners: This is one of the most severe shortages we identified, with nearly 1.5 openings for every available worker: a total of 1.04 million health care jobs going unfilled because there aren’t enough qualified workers. Some rapidly growing, advanced practice clinical care roles, such as nurse practitioners, physician’s assistants, physical therapists, and occupational therapists, have more than 1.7 openings for every potential worker. And these roles require long training periods, which means it will take time to turn this problem around.
Information Security Analysts: Nearly every business sector is scrambling for cybersecurity talent. The ratio between openings and workers for this specific occupation is 1.5, comparable to the health care industry gap, although the total number of surplus openings is smaller (67,610).
Computer and Information Scientist: There has been an explosion in demand for Data Scientists (which the BLS includes under the Computer Scientist occupation). As recently as 2012, computer scientists showed no gap at all as an occupation, but now have risen to 1.2 openings for every worker. That’s the largest change of any technology occupation although again, the total number of surplus openings is comparatively small (18,740). In other research, Burning Glass Technologies has identified data analytics as a “disruptive skill” that shakes up job markets because it is crucial to business success, hard to source, and lacking an established training system.
Not Every Shortage is a Skills Gap
Not every worker shortage is driven by a skills gap. Roles like Personal Care Aides and Customer Service Representatives all have high ratios of openings to available workers. The skills involved also don’t require lengthy training. The problem is that these jobs aren’t that attractive, with relatively low pay and challenging working conditions.
In other cases, a shortage may be a combination of a changing economy and how employers respond to it. Office and Administrative Support roles have gone from 0.95 openings per worker in 2012 to 1.05 in 2016. That means there were 375,933 more Office and Administrative Support workers than there were posted openings in 2012, compared to 427,736 more openings than workers in 2016.
This is driven by the recovery from the Great Recession over the last several years (total hiring only reached its pre-recession level last year). In 2016, there were 5% more openings than available workers, whereas in 2012 the situation was reversed: 5% more workers than openings.
Another factor, however, is that employers have been raising the bar for these roles: postings for many of these formerly middle-skill positions now require a bachelor’s degree. For example, 37% of job postings for Bookkeepers ask for a bachelor’s degree, compared to 19% of current Bookkeepers who have one. In our analysis, there are 1.05 openings per worker, or 29,748 unfilled openings.
This “upcredentialing” is likely driven by several factors. When the labor market is tight, hiring managers are able to raise standards and be more selective. In addition, employers may also be using the bachelor’s degree as a proxy for “soft skills.” These skills—communication, collaboration, time management, and so on—are crucial in administrative roles, and employers often complain about how difficult they are to find among high school graduates.
The key point, however, is that there isn’t a single solution to the skills gap. Different occupations will call for different approaches—and a more flexible attitude by employers, educators, and policymakers alike.
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