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Skilled Labor in High Demand

Employers Lament Declining Ranks of Capable Workers

By Nell Henderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 25, 2004; Page E01

David L. Hurley is eager to hire new workers at his Florida surveying company and isn't asking for much: Only a dozen or so people with enough basic math to learn the software he uses to make blueprints, and enough basic sense to show up on time.

But after weeks of want ads and recruiting, he has drawn a conclusion: The workers aren't out there. While there are plenty of people who "can fog a mirror" and might be able to do grunt work on a survey crew for $8.50 an hour, Hurley said the economy has run short of people with the types of basic skills he could mold into a $20-per-hour survey crew chief.

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A Widening Gap Over the past 24 years, the wage gap has nearly doubled between college graduates and workers with only a high school diploma.
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"I would add 15 people tomorrow if I could find them," said Hurley, president of Landmark Engineering & Surveying Corp. of Tampa. "We need people with some knowledge of trigonometry and geometry. It's really just arithmetic. We're turning down work because we don't have the people."

To explain why wage and job growth has remained weak during a nearly three-year period of economic expansion, economists point to a complicated set of dynamics.

Developing countries like India have become increasingly competitive in global markets, offering well-trained workers at comparatively cut-rate prices. American workers have become steadily more productive -- a two-edged sword that makes each employee more valuable but which has largely boosted company profits instead of wages and hiring. The decline of organized labor and the stagnation of the federal minimum wage have helped suppress what workers are paid, say analysts like Harry Holzer, a Georgetown University professor and former chief Labor Department economist during the Clinton administration.

But an important and potentially worrisome piece of the puzzle can be seen through the experience of employers like Hurley, who contend that low-cost labor in India, China and elsewhere is far from the only thing inhibiting job growth in the United States.

Whether it is in expanding areas like health care or in the beleaguered manufacturing sector, employers say that once they are ready to add to their payrolls, it is often so difficult to find capable workers that positions are left unfilled. Those who have the required skills typically already have jobs, said representatives in a number of industries, while those who are available often aren't qualified. Trade groups and business owners say employers are begging for engineers, machinists, information technology workers, radiology technicians, nurses, health care finance administrators, and even, in an age of computer diagnostics, auto mechanics.

Faced with the task of hiring a specialty aluminum welder in Michigan, where troubles in the auto industry have left thousands of blue-collar factory employees out of work, Diane Dearing came up empty.

"It's hard to find skilled people," said Dearing, president of Display Structures Inc., of Troy, Mich., which makes metal parts for trade-show displays.

Economists and sociologists have long recognized the dual nature of the American economy -- an $11 trillion behemoth that leads the world in technology, research and innovation, yet with a population that lags nearly a dozen other developed countries in basic literacy and science. American adults rank 12th in literacy among those of 20 high-income, industrialized countries, according to a 2002 study by the private Educational Testing Service; American 12th-graders ranked below the average of their international counterparts in math and science, according to the 1999 Third International Math and Science Study, a project of the Lynch School of Education at Boston College.


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