Job skills gap? Skeptic says factors tell another story

January 5, 2013

The author says companies don’t invest in the work force and demand more than ever from job applicants, including a willingness to accept insufficient wages.

For two years, Gov. Paul LePage has met with Maine business leaders to discuss the skills gap: the theory that employers have plenty of jobs, but not enough qualified people to fill them. New Democratic leaders in the Legislature recently vowed to tackle the issue, creating a bipartisan committee to meet with “business leaders, work force experts and economists.”

But Peter Cappelli has some advice for the governor and legislators: Talk to some of the 51,000 Mainers who don’t currently have a job.

“I guarantee that politicians will hear a much different story about the so-called skills gap from the unemployed than they’re hearing from companies,” Cappelli said.

Cappelli, a professor of management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, may be the nation’s leading skills gap skeptic. As the rumbling about the country’s unskilled work force has risen to a national din, Cappelli has become the country’s contrarian voice, appearing on “60 Minutes,” penning op-eds for The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and writing the book “Why Good People Can’t Find Jobs.”

The former co-director for the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center on Education Quality of the Workforce believes that the skills gap is “an illusion,” a “myth.”

He says that if companies are having trouble filling jobs, it’s because they’re demanding more than ever from job applicants: highly specific educational training, previous experience and a willingness to work for wages that are not commensurate with the purported demand for job applicants.

Cappelli says companies also are demanding changes in the education system to make up for their own lack of investment in work-force training and employee development.

The result, he concludes, are logjams at cash-strapped community colleges, the institutions that have shouldered the vocational training burden.

Meanwhile, Cappelli said, capable people remain out of work, while companies remain understaffed.

Cappelli’s points are not well-received in the business community.

In Maine, efforts by LePage, and more recently Democratic lawmakers, have been almost universally applauded by state business leaders. Newspaper coverage of the Democratic leadership’s plans to tackle the skills gap prompted a flurry of opinion pieces and letters from business leaders, championing the need to better prepare Maine’s work force to help grow the state economy.

Godfrey Wood, president of the Greater Portland Regional Chamber, cited a recent report for Southern Maine Community College that by 2018, 90 percent of new jobs in Maine will require some type of formal education beyond high school. The same report predicted that 4,000 high-wage jobs will go unfilled over the next 10 years due to the lack of skills.

To read the full article by Steve Mistler, go to