Well, when I said I would be posting infrequently, I didn’t expect to go
three weeks between posts. I’ve had the thoughts for this post floating
around in my head for the past couple weeks, but only today have they
coalesced into something coherent.
The issue of skills shortages and inadequate STEM education in the US
has been a noteworthy issue for me for at least the past year, partly
for personal reasons and partly due to the significant role my employer
plays in the current STEM education push. Since the shortages and the
education are two somewhat-distinct stages of a pipeline, I intend to
cover them in separate posts. This post covers the (supposed) skills
shortage in the current workforce, which is the more personal of the
issues for me; I’ll discuss the STEM education in a follow-up post.
Vivek Wadhwa posted a
on TechCrunch a few months ago covering a range of issues with
engineering employment. Something in particular stuck out to me:
Alden postulates that employers are looking for very precise skill sets
that are not readily available either because of inadequacies in U.S.
education and training, or because of insufficient mobility in the labor
I definitely agree with the first part of this statement. However, I
don’t think training and mobility are the driving issues, though they
certainly are issues. In my rather unscientific survey of job postings,
I generally see two things: 1) requiring years of experience in precise
skill sets; 2) strong preference for, and sometimes explicitly rejecting
anyone but, local candidates. If good candidates are routinely rejected
for one or both of those reasons, then solving the problems Alden
mentioned won’t make much headway. In fact, this trend is one of a few
things I think calls into question the efficacy of the STEM education
movement, but that is a subject for my next post.
Then there is the appropriateness of the precise requirements. One of
summarized this problem well:
My experience is that companies are asking for specific skill sets
that aren’t remotely connected to what the position needs. For
instance, I saw an ad for the position I am currently happily in,
and I didn’t apply because I didn’t have most of the skills they
wanted. However, when I saw a link to the same ad from someone I
knew who was working in the company, I gave it a shot and was hired
right off the bat (because my skills were known to that person).
After a couple of weeks in the position, I could see that someone
with the skills they were asking for would have been VERY unhappy in
the position. These skills are very commonly advertised for in the
industry I’m in, and I can’t help thinking that they’re probably as
irrelevant in many of the other jobs as they are in this one, and
companies insisting on those skills are eliminating many candidates
that are likely perfect for the job in favor of ones that could be a
poor fit (even if they’re available).
I have been there myself, having a position where the description didn’t
match well with the actual work. To some degree, this inaccuracy is
unavoidable; nobody can craft a job description that encompasses
everything the position will be required to do. Still, after getting the
job you should not hear something to the effect of, “You’re awesome, but
we wouldn’t have hired you based on your resume.”. (I got this position
through my department manager, so I didn’t formally apply.) I have
coworkers who feel deceived to various degrees about what to expect on
our current program as well.
From my little corner, these inappropriate filter functions appear to be
a serious impediment to successfully filling engineering positions.
These mostly affect large companies, but these are the same large
companies pouring millions into the STEM effort and trying to get the
federal government to do the same. The same companies that claim to be
committed to “attracting and retaining world-class talent”. Perhaps
these companies should take a critical look at their own houses before
proclaiming a critical shortage, or be honest about what they are