In a recent column at BloombergView, Michael Strain, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, asserted that US businesses, particularly manufacturers, protest too much about the skills gap. Their inability to source skilled employees could be solved, he argued, if they were simply willing to pay higher wages for the talent they need:
Wage growth is picking up, but it is lower than what many economists expect in light of overall economic conditions, and it is not soaring for specific industries.
Simply put, if businesses can’t find workers — or can’t find workers with the right skills — they should raise their wage offers. Basic supply-and-demand logic suggests that doing so will broaden the pool of workers interested in the job, and will make the job more desirable to applicants. In addition, raising wage offerings would likely draw in some of the millions of Americans who report they want a job but are out of the labor force. So unless wage growth picks up, the warnings about labor shortages will fall flat.
Strain is not the first economist to argue that the skills gap is a simple supply-and-demand problem that could be solved by raising the price of labor, or that the problem is on the demand side (not enough attractive jobs) as well as the supply side (not enough skilled workers). Stagnant wage growth may be a factor in US employers’ labor market woes, but in focusing exclusively on wages rather than training and hiring barriers, Strain’s claim oversimplifies the challenge employers are facing. Years of research consistently tell us that while competitive compensation is a large component of what attracts candidates to jobs, there’s no simple formula by which you can convince any given candidate to take a job simply by offering a high enough salary.
It’s easy to point to “basic supply-and-demand logic” to criticize manufacturing companies when you don’t actually understand their experiences in local labor markets, but who says manufacturers aren’t trying to raise wages already anyway? A 2015 study by the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte showed that 80 percent of manufacturing companies were already willing to pay more than market rates to reduce the skills gap—especially for more skilled labor, such as machinists, craft workers, and industrial engineers. Yet according to our own research at CEB, now Gartner, only 23 percent of heads of HR in the manufacturing industry believe they can close critical skills gaps over the next 12 months.