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The “Skills Gap” Was a Lie

For years, capitalists and their journalistic mouthpieces blamed joblessness on a skills gap. But there wasn’t a skills gap. There was a gap between what society owes people and what it’s willing to offer them at the expense of corporate profits.

A worker on a dam in Olmsted, Illinois. LouisvilleUSACE / Flickr.

Despite the economic recovery, unemployment still commonplace — indeed, much higher than officially reported. And bosses and pro-corporate politicians still marshall the same excuses as to why. It’s the labor force, they say. The workers themselves aren’t good enough. There’s a “skills gap,” one that only government-subsidized training programs can solve. If this proposed solution amounts to a massive transfer of public resources to the private sector, that’s surely just a coincidence.

The “skills gap” explanation gained a lot of traction during the Great Recession, when unemployment ballooned and corporations were eager to displace responsibility. But left-wing economists maintained that there was was no skills gap at all. Employers were just being as choosy as possible, looking to cut costs by making job training somebody else’s responsibility. And they could get away with it during the recession, since high unemployment meant a torrent of applicants for every job opening, allowing them to hire only the cream of the crop — workers who gained their skills on somebody else’s dime (including their own).

The skills gap narrative was a bluff, said doubters on the Left. Companies were just pretending that perfectly qualified workers weren’t up to snuff, forcing desperate applicants to pursue training at their own financial expense, compete ruthlessly with each other for jobs for which they were overqualified, and then eventually, exhausted by routine rejections, settle for low wages. Companies were taking advantage of a weak economy to further exploit workers, and they were using the skills gap narrative as cover.

Skeptics of the skills gap were vindicated when unemployment started to fall during the modest economic recovery. A tightening labor market exposed the shallowness of employers’ rationale for increasingly strict credentialing. Companies that had previously sworn up and down that they couldn’t possibly afford to hire people with criminal records, for example, suddenly started hiring not just the formerly incarcerated but even the currently incarcerated. It turned out that there was no good reason why a person who’d run afoul of the law couldn’t wire tail lights for $14 an hour.

While there’s been plenty of anecdotal evidence debunking the skills gap in recent years, there’s now a new entry in the category, this one based on solid data. A paper by researchers Alicia Sasser Modestino, Daniel Shoag, and Joshua Ballance titled “Upskilling: Do Employers Demand Greater Skill When Workers Are Plentiful?” finds that yes, they do. Their findings were succinctly summarized by Matt O’Brien of the Washington Post: “They found that, in the years after the crash, the more people who were unemployed, the more conditions companies put on their job openings.”

The researchers analyzed millions of job vacancy listings online, and found strong evidence of “opportunistic upskilling” during the peak of the Great Recession. They don’t claim it was the only reason that workers consistently received feedback that they were underqualified — for example, in an increasingly digital age, it is true that more jobs than ever require computer skills — but according to their findings it was a big one. And importantly, it’s one that right-wing economists and politicians dismissed routinely during the recession. The US Chamber of Commerce itself even published an article insisting that “the skills gap is very real,” and proposing public-private partnerships at community colleges as a failsafe solution.

And don’t think for a minute that this phenomenon just started in the last few years. More than fifty years ago, in his final manuscript, Martin Luther King Jr. made a similar observation with respect to black unemployment. “The insistence on educational certificates and credentials for skilled and semiskilled jobs,” he observed, “is keeping Negroes out of both the private business sector and government employment.”

Personnel offices were demanding that potential employees have gleaming résumés, King noted, but they weren’t offering to provide the necessary training and credentialing themselves. The poor and unemployed were in a tough position: you needed training to get a job, but you needed money to get training, and you needed a job to get money. Racial discrimination added an extra layer of difficulty to anyone trying to escape this predicament.

“‘Training’ becomes a way of avoiding the issue of employment,” King concluded, “for it does not ask the employer to change his policies and job structures.” To solve the problem of unemployment, King advocated a different approach: “Jobs First, Training Later.” We could eliminate unemployment, he argued, by making job-provision a political priority, and making it employers’ task to train their own workers. Training can and should happen on the job, King believed, and trainees should receive a normal paycheck while they’re learning skills that will be useful to their employers and to society.

In an ideal society, it wouldn’t be the task of ordinary people to desperately contort themselves to fit into an economy that was designed to exploit and exclude them. The economy should be designed to fit people instead. That’s why King believed that the guaranteed provision of jobs should come first, and employers should provide appropriate training as a fulfillment of that promise. This should come at no additional cost to workers themselves, who have economic rights regardless of their pedigree.

What we saw during the Great Recession wasn’t a skills gap. It was a gap between what a society owes its people and what it’s willing to offer them at the expense of corporate profits.