Highly Skilled Workers a Competitive Challenge

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By Lindsay Macintosh, CHRP

Despite higher unemployment rates and current economic uncertainties, employers face the  growing challenge of availability and competition for highly skilled workers.

In a world of rapid technological change and shifting labour markets, more jobs demand advanced skills in new technologies; some occupations will decline or disappear altogether in the coming years.  The increasing complexities of jobs make it more difficult for people to move from one occupation to another.

The current overall employment picture is not as bleak as headlines suggest.  Although the number of hires decreased, employers still find it difficult to fill jobs.  The recent economic downturn is masking labour shortages in non-urban regions such as the Cariboo and the North Coast, as well as occupationally in areas such IT and skilled trades.

The contradiction between higher unemployment rates and labour shortages can be explained by the recent economic downturn and the people in the workforce.  There are too many jobs for too few people in some regions, and too few jobs for too many people in others.  Employers face skills shortages and regional and skills mismatches in the coming years.  The looming challenges include:

  • a much slower growth in the labour force;
  • regional mismatches between labour supply and demand, particularly in non-urban areas;
  • skill shortages and mismatches brought on by rapid technological change;
  • shortage of skilled managers across the province;
  • shortages of doctors, nurses and other health care workers;
  • shortages of workers in IT and the skilled trades; and
  • increase in demand for post-secondary education.

Mismatch refers to general gaps in qualifications, knowledge, education and training, as well as specific skill shortages.

Regional mismatch occurs when job opportunities exist in regions with shortages of local qualified workers, wherein here is an acute lack of skills and too few qualified people for particular occupations in a community.  Skilled workers may exist, but do not have the right skill mix or live in different regions.

Regional mismatch is a growing concern in non-urban communities, particularly those in the Cariboo and the North Coast, and will get worse as the province’s resource sectors expand to less populated regions.  Many unemployed and under-employed workers in urban communities are unwilling to move to non-urban communities where employment opportunities exist; instead, workers will command higher wages and bonuses for moving to smaller and rural communities.

In today’s world of rapid technological change, changes in skill composition for a job are becoming rampant.  As organizations use new technologies and alter business processes, their workers’ skills become obsolete.  Skills obsolescence diminishes workers’ capacities to perform their jobs.

Roslyn Kunin, director of B.C. Office, Canada West Foundation, says, “Technological change affects all occupations.  For example, Fed EX has made delivering parcels a high tech industry.”

Another factor driving labour shortages is the aging population.  Workers between 55 and 64 years have doubled over the past twenty years.  The number of young people under 30 has been on a decline.

Going after youth is a big challenge for employers.  Employers in the tourist and food/beverage industries in which many jobs are filled by young people, are facing this challenge. Jesse Ferreras’ article, “Labour Crunch Hitting Whistler”, which recently appeared in Whistler’s Pique Newsmagazine, says that Zog’s, Moguls and Gone Bakery and other businesses at Whistler are experiencing difficulties in getting applications, even after putting ads in Craigslist as well as Pique.

Employers will have to continuously assess the labour market and make ongoing adjustments if they are to keep aligned with the changing needs of the economy.

Dawn Longshaw, managing director, professional recruitment at Vertical Bridge Corporate Consulting Inc., says, “Employers must take a creative and flexible approach to finding qualified workers”.  Longshaw adds, “Employers must:

  • review what steps they have taken;
  • review job descriptions and specifications, making sure they know what they are looking for;
  • discuss whether expectations are realistic and how flexible they are prepared to be in looking at other markets and search criteria; and
  • determine which criteria are most important.”

To find more suitably qualified workers and sustain labour force growth, it is essential for employers to look at markets outside their communities.  They must fully utilize the pool of potentially available labour by encouraging participation of under-utilized groups including aboriginal people, immigrants, people with disabilities and older workers.

In our knowledge-based economy, business and industry must work together with educators to expand training opportunities and ensure there are enough qualified workers.  Apprenticeship, internship and co-op programs can offer relevant work experience with a focus on education.  They are essential to building a highly qualified and productive work force.

Change is ongoing, but it needs to be factored both strategically and internally; it is becoming more critical for business, government, and educators to constantly assess and re-assess whether education, training, policies, and labour are aligned with the changing work force.

(PeopleTalk Winter 2011)

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