Looking for answers on the jobs crisis? Look at businesses, not workers.

Laura Clawson


The campaign to shift the economic narrative from businesses not creating jobs to workers not being good enough to deserve jobs continues. Sometimes it’s wholly cynical. Other times it seems to be done with good intentions. But ultimately, however good the intentions, workers—whether currently employed or struggling to find jobs—are harmed when powerful people promote the idea that the big reason for unemployment lies in the deficiencies of unemployed people.

Arianna Huffington, for instance, is getting on board with what appears to be a well-intentioned version of this storyline:

More than 20 million Americans are currently unemployed or underemployed, yet 3.4 million available jobs remain unfilled because job seekers lack the necessary skills.

This sentence should, for most readers, refute itself. There are more than 3 million jobs that not one of the more than 20 million unemployed or underemployed people can’t fill because they, the unemployed people, aren’t skilled enough? It’s a common line, and if it’s true, it points to a need for huge government investment in higher education and technical training. But the evidence suggests it’s just not true that skills and training are the real issue here.
For one thing, we have the data showing that recruiting intensity—how hard businesses are actually trying to find people to fill the jobs they claim they want to fill—is very low, far below what it was before the recession.


Other studies, too, find “limited evidence of skills mismatch”; in other words, in a few areas there may be a scarcity of workers already trained to do vacant jobs, but it’s not widespread, certainly not enough so to explain the levels of unemployment we see. That’s pretty clearly visible when you look at a breakdown of jobless people and job openings by industry:


Another measure of how workers—currently employed workers—feel about the actual, real-life availability of jobs lies in how many of those workers quit their jobs. Usually you quit one job either because you have another, better job prospect, or because you feel like it won’t be too hard to find an equally good job. But, the Economic Policy Institute’s Elise Gould writes, that’s not the case:

If the economy were healthier, we would expect a larger number of voluntary quits, which would signal that workers are more confident about outside job opportunities. Voluntary quits are also on a general upward climb, having increased 20.7 percent since June 2009. But they too have a long way to go; they are still 26.8 percent below their 2007 average.

Yet despite evidence piling on evidence that high unemployment is because of a lack of available jobs and that if allegedly available jobs go unfilled, it’s only very rarely because of a lack of skilled workers, we still hear a lot about how the problem is that workers need more training.

Many of the people involved in the campaign to highlight “what we the people can do to accelerate job creation and fill job openings” that Arianna Huffington is promoting doubtless have good intentions. And the campaign as she describes it does focus some on job creation, mainly through small business. (That’s a focus that may help some, but again fails to challenge the big businesses that are the real culprits in the jobs crisis.) But as long as the idea that there are millions of for-real job openings that American workers just aren’t good enough to fill is as central a focus as the idea that America needs job creation, this effort will do more to scapegoat workers than to make a dent in unemployment.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on August 12, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos. She has a PhD in sociology from Princeton University and has taught at Dartmouth College. From 2008 to 2011, she was senior writer at Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.