My view: Shortage of 'middle-skills' workers hinders S.L. economy

By Richard Tripp

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, Feb. 16 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

Pedestrians walk on Main Street in downtown Salt Lake City.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

In mid-2013, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce named Utah as one of the best places to do business in the United States. Another report, issued in 2012 by commercial real estate firm NAI West, also listed Utah as the No. 1 place to do business in the country.

Clearly, Utah — and Salt Lake City in particular — are experiencing an economic recovery and renaissance. However, finding the right people with the right skill set remains a pressing problem for local business owners. Our region faces a serious shortage of workers for so-called middle-skill jobs — positions that require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree. In fact, employers are even resorting to hiring workers with occupational skills imported from out of state or from other countries such as China and India.

Tom Bingham, former president of the Utah Manufacturing Association, has acknowledged the irony of a shortage of skilled workers in a booming economy, noting, “The jobs are being created, but we are seeking skilled workers from outside the state when we could be filling them with our own citizens if they had the skill sets.”

The state’s “Custom Fit” program, through which employers outline the skills they need and future employees are pre-trained for occupational skills, is an innovative public-private partnership. It helps bridge between the skills gap in our region and supports individual businesses’ growth and success. However, as with all business decisions, the burden ultimately rests on the owner and his or her ability to make strategic, thoughtful talent decisions — both in terms of new hires and in developing and retaining existing employees.

Certain considerations can strengthen the changes of a good hire from a limited talent pool:

Before you turn to hiring, scrutinize your existing operations. Don’t hire because you’re overwhelmed, and especially when you’re overwhelmed. Planning workloads and understanding capacity takes time, but it’s a critical step and it should always precede hiring decisions. Take the time and use knowledgeable resources to fully consider all workplace possibilities, including shifting workloads or hiring a temp.

Be selective, even in the face of the skills gap. What’s important to you as a local employer? What are your short- and long-term workplace needs and goals? Those two lists need to align, or at the very least, not conflict. Only after taking inventory of these values and needs should you begin the hunt to find the very best candidate who not only meets the job criteria but also is the right cultural fit for the company. On-the-job training can address specific skill shortfalls, but if it’s not a cultural fit, no amount of training will make it work.

Create your own workforce. Admittedly, this is not a one size fits all strategy. But when Con-way Freight found itself lacking qualified freight drivers, it started its own driving schools, guaranteeing jobs for individuals who passed the course. In less than two years, the Salt Lake City office graduated one of the first classes, filled its open jobs and met customer demand — with the corporate costs of training offset by revenue increases. With a little guidance, an on-the-job training pipeline could be instituted in other industries and companies.

In Salt Lake City, with a diverse spectrum of industry sectors including manufacturing, retail, education and health care, employers have the opportunity to experience maximum growth. By utilizing all resources at their disposal to carefully vet potential candidates, local business owners can supersede the skills gap and share in the benefits of a booming economy.

Richard Tripp is area manager of BBSI and Strategic Staffing in Salt Lake City. BBSI is a provider of business management solutions, including human capital and risk management and recruiting, to more than 3,000 small and mid-sized businesses.

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