07/26/2012 05:02 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Mind The Gap: Getting The Right Workers Into The Right Jobs

America remains in the midst of an unemployment crisis. Despite private-sector job gains in recent months, nearly 13 million people are still looking for work, and the national unemployment rate hovers stubbornly at 8.2 percent.

skills gap

And yet, in one of the more hopeful signs of recovery, the number of job openings has been growing steadily. American employers advertised an estimated 3.6 million job vacancies at the end of May, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Aside from March of this year, that's the most openings we've seen in roughly four years and by far the most since the recession officially ended in mid-2009, when there were only about 2.5 million openings.

The openings reveal a few rays of light in different sectors. Although construction still remains battered, manufacturing had a considerable 310,000 job vacancies, about triple the number from mid-2009, showing at least a temporary rebound for an industry long in decline. Education and health care job openings hit roughly 700,000 for the first time since mid-2008, having dropped to around 500,000 during the recession. Vacancies in the retail world are up by about a third of where they were just two years earlier.

"It tells us there's a need and willingness to add to payrolls," said Charlotte Oslund, a statistician at BLS. "The hypothesis is, when the economy is improving, then an employer is going to work current employees more, or they might hire temporary help. But the last thing they will do is post a job opening. That’s the final step in the recovery."

But there's a slightly puzzling trend in the numbers, Oslund said: The rate of new job openings has been outpacing the number of new hires.

There could be a number of reasons for this, including geography. Unemployed workers aren't necessarily where the new jobs are, or have a hard time moving because of their underwater homes. Wages could be another reason: Workers who had good jobs don't necessarily want to settle for less pay. And there's also the notion of "skills gaps" in certain industries -- the debatable idea that not enough workers have the proper training for certain jobs. Our education system, some argue, isn't addressing the mismatch between the skills acquired by American workers and the skills needed. As seen in the map below, some cities, like Missoula, Mont., have an overabundance of highly educated workers, while others, like El Paso, Texas, don't have enough.

BLS statistics don't pinpoint exactly where the new job openings are geographically -- only which sectors they fall in -- or how long particular job vacancies have gone unfilled. But the Brookings Institution has amassed data on what it calls "education gaps" -- the degree to which workers in certain areas have the education they need for jobs that are available locally. In addition to graphing which sectors hold the 3.6 million open jobs, HuffPost has mapped out the different education gaps of metro area across the country.

As for why openings are growing at a faster pace than new hires, Oslund said there are a handful of theories but no firm answers.

"For some reason, we're just not getting people into all those jobs," Oslund said. "If you figure it out, let us know."

Graphics by Timothy Wallace