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The State of the Staffing Skills Gap

The State of the Staffing Skills Gap

By: John Rossheim 

With the unemployment rate hovering near 5 percent, the staffing skills gap is looming larger than it has in about a decade. DevOps specialists are way too few, universities are producing STEM college graduates in insufficient numbers -- even collections agencies can’t keep all their seats filled. 

Despite the challenges of signing in-demand talent, successful staffing firms are successfully applying a range of hiring tactics -- from brute-force sourcing to new investments in training.

IT and development skills continue top the list.  The critical skills of software programmers and architects pose the most complex shortages in American industry. “We’re still seeing a lot of pressure in IT and development,” says Matt Rivera, a vice president at staffing firm Yoh. Many staffing firms like Yoh have recruiters scouring job boards, social media and specialized sites like Stack Overflow and GitHub for leads on passive IT candidates who might be motivated to make a move for a better opportunity to use their niche skills.

Complex technical skill sets are difficult to teach. Strategic combinations of computer and networking skills are never in sufficient supply, and they’re difficult for professionals to acquire. “Collaborative IT administration, for one, is very hot – but there are not a lot of good, qualified people who have the skills to do DevOps,” says Rivera. “It’s very difficult to train in these deep technical areas. Some of our clients are training people in networking and then moving them up into DevOps.”

There’s a shortage of new grads with STEM skills. Skills in science, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are right up there on the shortage spectrum with technology. “We see a mismatch between recruiters and college seniors,” says Josh Wright, chief economist at iCIMS, which makes application tracking software. “There are many more recruiters looking for STEM college graduates than there are seniors graduating in these field.”

In this data age, the skills to exploit numbers are in short supply. Business in the 2010s is all about data, and data scientists aren’t the only ones who need to know how to use it. From logistics experts to marketers, data skills continue to grow in importance across business disciplines. And one-quarter of employers reported difficulty in recruiting workers with the ability to understand and interpret data, according to the Spherion Emerging Workforce Survey.

Transactional finance skills come up short. If you think that there are plenty of folks out there to fill fundamental finance and accounting roles, you’re wrong. Just keeping the fiscal trains running has become a major challenge as unemployment has continued its long, gradual decline. 

“With payroll, collections and billing, the labor force has just run out of people to do this basic work,” says Stu Coleman, a partner and senior managing director at staffing firm WinterWyman. “We’re still getting requests from clients for recent graduates for these very transactional jobs.”

Jobs in the skilled trades go begging. As technology continues its takeover of factory work, skilled trades are becoming even more technical and openings are getting harder to fill. “In some parts of the country, people with the skills to be machine operators and welders are retiring without enough replacements,” says Sandy Mazur, a division president at staffing firm Spherion. “Most communities are trying to step up to the need for training in trades, but it’s a tough challenge.”

Where are the communications, problem-solving and workplace skills? Their social-media savvy notwithstanding, Generation Zers entering the workforce often lack the soft skills such as communications and other interpersonal skills, recruiters say. “There’s really a concern about the degree of professionalism that college students have,” says Wright. 

“In our survey, 74 percent of recruiters said that written and spoken communications were more important than college major.” The survey also showed high demand for critical thinking and problem-solving skills and knowledge of how to function effectively in the workplace.

Revisit retraining programs to keep them on target. To fill skills gaps, savvy companies are making an investment that serves dual purposes: training employees in mission-critical skills and retaining employees by seeing after their professional development. 

“We’ve updated all our training for our internal employees,” says Mazur. “We do a study every year to understand any disconnect between employers and employees. We have classes on customer service skills and how to use data to make decisions.”

Employees ferret out skilled friends for referral bonuses. Employers increasingly are turning to their workers to help fill the most stubborn skills gaps. “Companies have always liked the idea of employee referrals,” says Coleman. 

“The difference now is that now they’re really jacking up the money, to $2,000, $3,000, $5,000. This motivates people to unearth candidates with hard-to-find skills,” he says.