A Detailed Look at Skill Shortages

As the United States continues to fight its way out of the Great Recession, more attention has been directed to the question of why is has taken so long for workers to find re-employment. In economist parlance, this is primarily a question of “structural unemployment.” This describes the type of unemployment that results from a mismatch of worker skills and the skills demanded by employers.

As of April 2011, there were 13.2 million unemployed workers and 2.9 million unfilled job openings. In other words, April’s bulky 8.7% unemployment rate could have been lowered one percentage point (to 7.7%) if just half of the advertised job vacancies were filled by unemployed workers. Obviously, it is not realistic for every position to be filled immediately—it takes time for employers to find the right workers, and vice versa. But the odd pairing of high unemployment and high job vacancies illustrates a structural employment issue, which may have worsened in recent years.

Historically, when the economy is growing, the unemployment rate is relatively low and the job vacancy rate is relatively high, indicating more job openings than there are workers to fill those positions. Likewise, when the economy is shrinking, the unemployment rate is relatively high and the vacancy rate is relatively low, because there are more workers looking for work than there are jobs. This pattern held between 2008 and mid-2009 but from the second half of 2009 through mid-2011, the vacancy rate has remained surprisingly high when compared to the unemployment rate. [1]

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