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Businesses' Responsibility to Train And Reskill The Long-Term Unemployed

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Even though the U.S. job market continues to operate far below its potential, many employers are expressing frustration over the quality of job seekers applying to their open positions. In a survey from CareerBuilder and Harris Interactive, 8 in 10 employers expressed concern over an emerging skills gap, but interestingly, only 4 in 10 employers believed their organizations were doing anything to close it.

To fix skill shortages in the near and long term, employers simply have to play a larger role in the process of training and reskilling.

Of course, there are many other factors critical to navigating the competitive talent market. Those include eliminating hiring practices that inadvertently screen out qualified candidates, studying labor supply and demand data to see where top talent resides, and ensuring wages are both competitive and rising for skilled positions. Ultimately, however, more companies must take ownership of the problem by developing the skills they need internally.

While researching my forthcoming book, The Talent Equation, my co-authors and I spoke with executives at Humana, who at the time were finishing up the first phase of an initiative to hire 1,000 veterans or spouses of veterans in an effort to combat extremely high unemployment rates for post-9/11 service members. They proudly achieved their goal and were thrilled with the quality of their new hires. However, much of their success rested on their ability to hire for potential and train individuals who on paper may not have seemed like the perfect fit, but had enormous potential to succeed when given the right tools.

Humana's and other companies' efforts to reduce veteran unemployment is a learning moment. If we can acknowledge the ability of veterans and reward them with a job and training opportunities, I am confident the same can be done for the long-term unemployed.

This is an issue critical to securing an economic future that includes all Americans who seek to contribute. The share of the unemployed population that has been out of work for more than 27 weeks is nearly 40 percent - a high figure not reached in previous recoveries. As it stands now, the long-term unemployed, whether veterans or workers near the end of their careers, are at risk of being permanently left out of the workforce if their skills atrophy and their connections to the job market deteriorate.

Unfortunately, many companies have cut internal training programs or simply aren't in the practice of teaching workers new technical skills. A 2012 CareerBuilder survey found that 47 percent of U.S., nongovernment employers either have no training budgets at all or have training budgets under $25,000 annually. Workers sense the dearth of training opportunities as well. Only 21 percent of workers said they've acquired a new skill through company-provided training over the previous five years, according to an Accenture survey.

Many companies argue that training for technical skills presents a risk. Why give a new worker a skill they can easily take to a competitor who didn't make the same investment? But actually, empowering employment via training is a driver of retention and productivity gains if done well. A 2013 CareerBuilder survey found skills training and learning opportunities to be a better retention tactic for full-time workers than decreased workloads, academic reimbursement, and perks such as subsidized lunches, game rooms, or casual dress codes. Another study showed that training boosts productivity significantly more than labor costs, a signal that companies will reap the rewards of their investment.

It's also possible to successfully train for technical skills in fast-growing information technology occupations over a short period of time and still produce skilled, functional employees. To test this hypothesis CareerBuilder hired ten long-term unemployed individuals in 2012 for a six-month, paid internship and trained them in Structured Query Language (SQL) -- a programming language used for database management systems. Shortly after completing the program, seven of the interns landed full-time jobs and one went to school to earn a formal technology degree. We ran the program again in 2013 with similar success.

Some companies can't afford to be at full staff, let alone establish a new training program. That's understandable. But at a certain point we have to consider alternatives. If every employer capable of training for technical skills decides it's not their responsibility, the very skill shortages hiring managers cite as a perennial concern will only be exacerbated.

It's also important to note that extended vacancies come at a cost. One in four companies tells us they've lost revenue as a result of unfilled positions. Many more cite sinking morale among existing employees and reduced productivity. In light of this, an employer that is unable to fill key positions should question whether waiting for the perfect hire is worth these costs when an eager candidate can very likely learn the required skills and succeed in the role. I'm hopeful more companies will come to realize they have the tools to bring long-term unemployed workers back from the fold, thereby turning the page on one of the post-recession labor market's most important issues.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the "Close It" Summit, in conjunction with the upcoming "Close It" Summit (Nov. 5-7, 2013, in Washington, D.C.). The summit will address the U.S. job-market skills gap. For more information on the conference, please visit www.closeit.org.