Home Depot Syndrome, the Purple Squirrel, and America’s Job Hunt Rabbit Hole

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A Way Out

“The United States is at the moment the only country in the world where the notion that employers are simply the consumers of skills is seriously considered,” Cappelli declares in Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs.

“The great puzzle for people outside the US in the workforce world,” he adds in conversation, “is why we don’t have apprenticeship programs. Every other industrial country has got them. And in the countries that are emerging, like China, a big priority is to develop these programs … And we don’t have them.”

Nor are we likely to get them, he says—at least not at the national level. One reason is the sheer scale of the US economy. “In smaller countries in Europe,” Cappelli observes, “you could get the key employers in a room together and say, ‘Okay, guys, we’ve got to step up here.’” That’s impossible here.

But he contends that employers have a lot to gain from embracing what you might call apprenticeship writ small.
“What employers are complaining they can’t find now are not things the schools can deliver. They want work-based skills. They want the kinds of things that you can’t learn in a classroom. How do you manage a team of people? How do you implement this particular software? And we shouldn’t expect the schools to try to do that. It’s not very efficient. It’s much easier to teach somebody as an apprentice in the field.”

He insists that the way forward for many employers is to relax job requirements (or at least pry them from the vise grip of recruiting software) and re-shoulder some of the training burden that they used to assume—and that some firms still do, albeit in a slightly different way.

“If you look at the consulting companies, for example, or around Penn you look at the investment banks, they have very high rates of turnover,” he notes. “The investment banks lose all their junior analysts. And yet it works fine for them. Now, why is that? Because they’re basically treating these folks as apprentices. They’re learning a lot, but they’re learning as they are working and as they contribute. So it’s a model of learning that’s different than the old corporate model, where you’d start out with 18 months of classroom training, and then after that we’d slowly give you work experience.

“At law firms, consulting firms, accounting firms, you start contributing the day you arrive. And you’re learning as you go. So the model can work, and you can see it all over the place in parts of the private sector. And I think the parts that are not doing it have just got to figure out how to incorporate that pay-as-you-go model. It’s not rocket science.”

Similarly, he advocates tightening connections between employers and schools by way of co-op programs and collaborations that integrate classroom and work experience. Such arrangements in other countries, and when they’ve been tried here, work wonders for everyone involved. But “the constraint on building these arrangements has always been on the employer side: how to get them to engage in these efforts when the payoff to them is not immediate,” Cappelli writes.

“The present, debilitating disconnect between job supply and job demand,” he adds, “suggests that the time has finally come.”

As he put it in a presentation at the 2012 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, “The question for us … especially businesspeople, is, What are we going to do?

“Will we stand back and expect our most important asset to simply show up when we want it? Or are we going to get engaged in the supply chain and try and do something to get the workers we want?”


How Quakers Are Faring

A Brief History of Hiring
Walter Licht on the skills gap and what companies used to do about it.

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