The New Core Services: Career Management for the 21st Century
Long-Term Unemployment Isn't Just About Job Seeker Deficits

Zombie Ideas and Workforce Policies


Over the weekend, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman published an op-ed piece entitled Jobs and Skills and Zombies in which he tackles the ongoing idea that the problems in the job market are a lack of skills. He says:

. . . in an ever-changing economy there are always some positions unfilled even while some workers are unemployed, and the current ratio of vacancies to unemployed workers is far below normal. Meanwhile, multiple careful studies have found no support for claims that inadequate worker skills explain high unemployment.

But the belief that America suffers from a severe “skills gap” is one of those things that everyone important knows must be true, because everyone they know says it’s true. It’s a prime example of a zombie idea — an idea that should have been killed by evidence, but refuses to die.

And then he proceeds to make a very compelling case against the idea that its a lack of skills that explains our current unemployment problems. 

As Krugman points out, the problem with the skills myth is that it has very real-world consequences for our policies and interventions. If we're focused on the idea that people just need skills, then we are putting a lot of resources and energy into training and not looking at the real issue, which is a lack of jobs. 

No one is arguing that there are large swaths of the population that need skills upgrades, but I do think that we need to understand that it's a challenge to get people to upgrade their skills when there are no jobs at the end of that work. Job seekers aren't being "lazy" if they resist investing their own limited time and resources into credentials or activities that will have little payoff in terms of a job or even higher earnings when they complete the cycle. 

One of the key questions I think we need to be asking ourselves as workforce development professionals is

"What should our work be if the key problem in today's market is that there aren't enough jobs to go around ?" 

What are your thoughts here? Where should we be investing time and resources if our biggest issue is a lack of jobs, rather than a skills mismatch? What shifts in policies and mindset do we need to be focused in this area? 


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Catherine Lombardozzi

I have the sneaking suspicion that part of the reason we have a lack of jobs is that too many people are doing more than full time work for full time pay. We need more people doing the work in many organizations, but companies are not hiring - they are pushing the people who are working to put in more time and effort. No?


Agreed, Catherine--that's an issue too! Many FT people are running scared, worried that they will lose their jobs if they don't pick up the slack.

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