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Your old position is open, but you're not qualified

The jobs crisis has brought an unwelcome discovery for many unemployed Americans: Job openings in their old fields exist. Yet they no longer qualify for them.

They're running into a trend that took root during the recession. Companies became more productive by doing more with fewer workers. Some asked staffers to take on a broader array of duties — duties that used to be spread among multiple jobs. Now, someone who hopes to get those jobs must meet the new requirements.

As a result, some database administrators also manage network security. Accountants must do financial analysis to find ways to cut costs. Factory assembly workers need to program computers to run machinery.

The broader responsibilities mean it's harder to fill many of the jobs that are open. It helps explain why many companies complain they can't find qualified people for certain jobs, even with 4.6 unemployed Americans, on average, competing for each job. By contrast, only 1.8 people, on average, were vying for each job opening before the recession.

The total number of job openings does remain historically low: 3.2 million. But the number of openings has surged 37 percent in the past year. And yet the unemployment rate has actually risen during that time. Companies still aren't finding it easy to fill job vacancies.

Take Bayer Material­Science, a unit of Bayer. When the company sought earlier this year to hire a new health, safety and environment director for one of its plants, it wanted candidates with a wider range of abilities than before. In particular, it needed someone skilled not just in managing health and safety but also in guiding employees to adapt to workplace changes.

Joe Bozada, chief of staff for Bayer's CEO, said the company initially interviewed 30 candidates. Then it did final interviews with seven. But none had the additional experience the company now wanted. The company chose one of its own employees it had already trained.

That shift, across multiple industries, has caught the eye of David Altig, research director at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. Workers aren't just being asked to increase their output, Altig says. They're being asked to broaden it, too.

A company might have had three back-office jobs before the recession, Altig said. Only one of those jobs might have required computer skills. Now, he said, "one person is doing all three of those jobs — and every job you fill has to have computer skills."

The trend is magnifying the obstacles facing the unemployed. Economists have long worried that millions of people who have lost jobs in depressed areas like construction don't qualify for work in growing sectors like health care. But it turns out that some of the jobless no longer even qualify for their old positions.

Frustrated in finding qualified applicants among the jobless, employers are turning to those who are already employed.

"They're hiring a known quantity that already has this specific experience on their resume," said Cathy Farley, a managing director at Accenture. "It is slowing some of the re-hiring from the ranks of the unemployed."

The trend reflects the push companies made during the recession to control costs, squeeze more output from staffs and become more productive. Productivity measures output per hour worked. Economy-wide, it rose 3.5 percent last year, the best performance in six years.

And it means workers are bearing heavier burdens. In manufacturing, employees increasingly must be able to run the computerized machinery that dominates most assembly lines. They also have to carry out additional tasks, such as inspecting finished products, notes Mark Tomlinson, executive director of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers.

Manufacturers advertised nearly 200,000 jobs at the end of August, a jump of about 40 percent from a year ago, according to government data. Yet hiring by manufacturers has risen less than 6 percent over that time.

"There are jobs available, but the worker just has to have more skills than before," Tomlinson said.

Did you know?

Human resource specialists have a nickname for the elusive job candidate whose skills and experiences precisely match an employer's needs: the "purple squirrel."

Your old position is open, but you're not qualified 10/23/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 23, 2010 5:31am]

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