In a brutal job market, here's a task that might sound easy: Fill jobs in nursing, engineering and energy research that pay $55,000 to $60,000, plus benefits.
Yet even with 15 million people hunting for work, even with the unemployment rate nearing 10 percent, some employers can't find enough qualified people for good-paying career jobs.
Ask Steve Jones, a hospital recruiter in Indianapolis who's struggling to find qualified nurses, pharmacists and MRI technicians, or Ed Baker, who's looking to hire at a U.S. Energy Department research lab in Richland, Wash., for $60,000 each.
Economists say the main problem is a mismatch between available work and people qualified to do it. Millions of jobs with attractive pay and benefits that once drew legions of workers to the auto industry, construction, Wall Street and other sectors are gone, probably for good. And those who lost those jobs generally lack the right experience for new positions popping up in health care, energy and engineering.
Many of these specialized jobs were hard to fill even before the recession. But during downturns, recruiters tend to become even choosier and less willing to take financial risks on untested workers. The mismatch between job opening and job seeker is likely to persist even as the economy strengthens and begins to add jobs.
"Workers are going to have to find not just a new company, but a new industry," said Sophia Koropeckyj, managing director of Moody's Economy.com. "A 50-year-old guy who has been screwing bolts into the side of a car panel is not going to be able to become a health care administrator overnight."
The trend has been intensified by the speed of the job market decline, Koropeckyj said. The nation has lost a net 7.2 million jobs since the recession began in December 2007. Yet it can take a year or more for a laid-off worker to gain the training and education to switch industries.
Contributing to the problem is that in a tough economy, employers take longer to assess applicants and make a hiring decision. By contrast, "in a healthier economy, you don't wait around for the perfect person," said Lawrence Katz, a professor of labor economics at Harvard University.
To be sure, employers in most sectors of the economy are having no trouble filling jobs — especially those, like receptionists, hotel managers or retail clerks, that don't require specialized skills.
But as more jobs vanish for good, the gap between the unemployed and the requirements of today's job openings is widening. Throughout the economy, an average of six people now compete for each job opening — the highest ratio on government records dating to 2000.
The trend has left job seekers like Joe Sladek anxious and frustrated. Sladek's 23 years in the auto industry haven't helped his efforts to land a job in alternative energy since he was laid off a year ago.
As a quality control engineer for auto supplier Dura Automotive Systems Inc. in Mancelona, Mich., he made about $75,000. He reviewed technical reports to ensure factory parts matched the clients specifications.
He hoped to parlay that experience into a similar job at a factory making windmill blades or solar panels. Several factories were hiring, and Sladek landed a few interviews. But he never heard back.