Thursday, May 3, 2012

A Bumpy Ride in the Job Market

When I last looked at the job market, I noted a tightening in tech jobs, and indeed, there has been a flurry of hiring activity in the past six weeks and especially in the last three days. But this does not mean that everyone who has advanced technical skills is employed now. Far from it. The job market (the tech side of it, anyway) is tighter only because employers are still reflexively refusing to consider long-term unemployed candidates and the overlooked technical graduates of the last 14 years, those who, because of the state of the economy, have not been able to find work in the fields they were trained to enter. At the same time, millions of skilled technical workers are discouraged by the job market and are no longer checking the job openings on a weekly basis.

A tighter job market is just a first step toward a market in balance, and not a very big step at that. There are long-term problems in the job market that will not be worked out easily.

Among them: the hiring freezes of the last seven years have scared students away from many specialized and technical fields, and rightly so. It is absolute folly to borrow money to train for work in a field where virtually every employer requires job applicants to have two years of experience, and the majority are considering only workers who are currently employed. Meanwhile, the drumbeat of “STEM” public service messages encouraging teenagers to go into careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is not helping matters. Imagine the reaction of the student who responds to these messages about the “need” for workers with technical know-how and diligently studies for ten years, finally earning a degree only to look at the job market and find himself unemployable. It does not take many of these stories for the word to get around that “STEM” is a scam.

On the other side are the employers who now expect to interview 20 or more qualified candidates for every job opening. That, of course, is not the way a healthy job market functions. In happier times, by the time you were done interviewing the fifth candidate, you would worry that at least one of the first three had already taken another job. But consider the point of view of hiring officials who over the last decade have come to expect an endless pool of candidates. The hiring officials may have never seen any other kind of job market. It is no surprise if they are already having trouble adjusting. And if they are having trouble now, imagine how they will fare in a supposedly normal job market with unemployment one third of its current levels. If the current generation of managers were to be judged on their ability to hire and retain workers in an actually competitive job market, most would have to be replaced. And if not, then their companies may face an uncomfortably short future, as other companies hire away all of the most skilled workers.

Meanwhile, let’s not forget that the long-term unemployed have not been sitting idle. Some of the business initiatives they have hatched in the last five years will, when they can finally get them funded over the coming decade, turn more than a few industries on their heads. Others have had a chance to study and gain a level of skill in a field that the long-term employed couldn’t possibly keep up with. Put this all together, and the job market is certain to be a bumpy ride for the next decade and longer.