Last year, the CORE Institute, a Phoenix medical laboratory, searched for a lab director for six months. The company eventually gave up, and a vice president shouldered the extra duties.
Meanwhile, Phoenix resident Alethea Session has been looking for a job as a finance manager for more than a year. Session has a master's degree in business administration and 20-plus years of industry experience. But now some companies require that certain finance-manager applicants be certified public accountants, a credential that Session lacks.
The two stories illustrate a gap in the state and national job market that troubles employers, job seekers and workforce analysts. Although the state unemployment rate is 8.7 percent and nearly 262,000 Arizonans are actively looking for jobs, some employers say that they have trouble finding qualified job candidates.
Workforce experts call it a job-skills mismatch: The people who want work don't always have the skills that employers are looking for. The issue is cropping up in industries from manufacturing and health care to technology and business services.
While the issue is hard to quantify in Arizona, business groups worry that it could stifle a fragile economic recovery. Nationally, it could hurt U.S. global competitiveness.
"Having access to the relevant talent to be able to grow your business is critical," said Steve Zylstra, president and CEO of the Arizona Technology Council.
Workers, employers and the educational system all own a slice of the problem, employment analysts say, and fixing it will take a coordinated effort from all sides.
According to federal figures, there were nearly 3.5 million job openings in the U.S. in February. About 700,000 of them were in the West.
With nearly 262,000 Arizonans looking for work, why don't the jobs and the prospective workers match up?
In everyday terms, the economy needs more software programmers and physical therapists and skilled lab techs than it used to, and fewer construction workers. It needs more skilled workers, but in the Phoenix metro area only 27 percent of the population age 25 and older earned a bachelor's degree, much lower than comparable areas such as Seattle or Denver.
One business group's survey suggests it's hard for employers to find highly skilled workers in Arizona, particularly in science and technology. A 2011 survey commissioned by the Arizona Technology Council found nearly 77 percent of 141 Arizona employers surveyed said it was "very difficult" or "somewhat difficult" to find qualified computer scientists.
As skills and specialties have evolved, the business environment has changed as well. The recession, intense competition and high productivity demands have made employers leaner. They need workers who can plug in and go: people with higher skill levels who immediately can handle specialized tasks.
Businesses often don't have the luxury of extra time, money or manpower to train workers who don't have the precise skills that they are looking for, said Yani Deros, president of ATOMdesign, a company that designs, brands, creates prototypes and devises production plans for new products.
The company has seven core employees but often must quickly double or triple its staff with independent contractors, such as engineers, for specific projects.
"The talent that we need must be really seasoned and really talented," said Deros, adding that clients expect fast turnaround times. "We go at such a breakneck speed we need to find people who can plug in and roll."
Sometimes that means it takes months to fill those positions. Sometimes, if the job is extremely specialized, they can't fill it at all.
While local schools are churning out nursing grads, there is a shortage of experienced nurses who have the time to train those newcomers, said Michael Seaver, a former Banner Health executive who worked in recruiting. He now leads his own consulting firm.
Banner, which operates hospitals in Arizona and six other states, once held open a nursing-specialist position in a rural out-of-state market area for 800 days before giving up, Seaver said.
And in some medical specialties, such as physical therapy and pharmacy, Arizona's universities don't produce enough graduates to satisfy the demand, Seaver said.
The CORE Institute was looking for a lab director who was a Ph.D. and who was deeply familiar with orthopedic research on how human joints work, said Marc Jacofsky, vice president of research and development.
Over six months, it considered 15 to 20 applicants, but only three or four were qualified for the job. Ultimately, Jacofsky took on the duties himself.
The recession also made companies more selective.
During the downturn, the job market was flooded with desirable workers. Employers could demand ultra-specific job requirements and get lots of qualified candidates.
Many top-tier people have found jobs, said Sherene McLemore, a Phoenix workforce project manager who helps local businesses recruit local hires. For some unfilled jobs, there are applicants who are capable of doing the work, but they may not have all of the skills that an ideal candidate would have, she added.
Companies that have delayed hiring, hoping to find a very specific job candidate, face a tough choice, McLemore said.
"If you look at the long term, what is it costing you to continue to keep that job open?" she asked.
Job seekers fret
The workers who face the job-skills mismatch often fall into two camps: new graduates or newcomers to the workforce with little experience; and on the other end of the spectrum, workers -- often Baby Boomers -- who stayed at one company or one industry for years.
The older workers have experience but not the degrees or certifications that employers now require, said Jessica Pierce, executive director of Career Connectors.
"They were focused on their company, not on their personal development," Pierce said.
The phenomenon is frustrating to job seekers, especially workers who have skills and job experience.
Session, the job seeker with an MBA, was a finance manager at American Express. After the Wall Street financial crisis, many companies want finance managers who have an accounting background to also be certified public accountants, regardless of whether they handle day-to-day accounting tasks or not, Session said.
"Yes, I do have experience, but now they want me to validate what I know," Session said.
Session, who teaches part time at the University of Phoenix, must decide whether she should get certified. A test-preparation course and taking the test could cost $2,000 to $4,000, Session said. Even if she got those credentials, it would not guarantee she would get a job, she added.
Joe Craney, 49, is in a similar position. He spent 20 years at Loreal and handled national sales accounts. He has been looking for upper-level sales jobs for five months.
Many employers now want job candidates for those positions to have project management professional certifications. Craney is reluctant to get the certification because he already has project-management experience.
Craney has started a marketing consulting business while he looks for full-time work.
He said he is considering certification, but "I know some individuals that have done it and it hasn't helped them."
Back to training
Facing a shortage of qualified applicants, some employers have decided that it's more cost-effective to create specialists through on-the-job training.
Last year, IO Data Centers wanted to quickly ramp up production of its computer data storage units, which are roughly the size of a semitruck. The company needed workers with construction skills and manufacturing skills, a rare combination in metro Phoenix.
With the help of a workforce-training grant, the company hired 25 construction workers, many of whom were jobless or underemployed after the housing collapse, and taught them manufacturing techniques. They were up and running in about four months, whereas it may have taken six months or longer to try to find those workers the traditional way, said David Andersen, an IO manufacturing manager.
It can be humbling to start over in a new industry, according to workers who went though the program. But they are grateful for the opportunity.
"It's a new world," said IO worker Joe Rangel, 37, of El Mirage. Rangel, once a construction superintendent at a drywall company, had worked in the building industry for 18 years.
Solving the puzzle
Solutions to the job-skills mismatch will involve initiative, flexibility and cooperation on all sides, employment analysts say.
Workers must keep their skills, degrees and certifications up to date, and companies have to be more flexible and more aggressive about how they recruit and train employees.
Craig Barrett, a retired chairman of Intel Corp., leads Ready Arizona, a council formed by Gov. Jan Brewer to help implement education reforms. He said the education system needs to expand programs that prepare workers in science, technology, engineering and math.
"Those relatively good-paying, low-skilled jobs are disappearing," Barrett said. "To get a good-paying job, you need skill sets."
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