There is a durable belief that much of today’s unemployment is rooted in a skills gap, in which good jobs go unfilled for lack of qualified applicants. This is mostly a corporate fiction, based in part on self-interest and a misreading of government data.
A Labor Department report last week showed 3.8 million job openings in the United States in April — proof, to some, that there would be fewer unemployed if more people had a better education and better skills. But both academic research and a closer look at the numbers in the department’s Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey show that unemployment has little to do with the quality of the applicant pool.
THE NUMBERS In a healthy economy, job openings are plentiful and unemployment is low. April’s tally of 3.8 million openings might sound like a lot, but it is still well below the prerecession average, in 2007, of 4.5 million openings a month. It is also far lower than the record high of 5.2 million openings in December 2000, when the survey was started near the peak of a long economic expansion.
Unemployment is also stubbornly high — 7.5 percent in April, or 11.7 million people, a ratio of 3.1 job seekers for every opening. No category has been spared: unemployed workers outnumber openings in all of the 17 major sectors covered by the survey. The biggest problem in the labor market is not a skills shortage; rather, it is a persistently weak economy where businesses do not have sufficient demand to justify adding employees.