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This one industry has the biggest jobs gap

A store front window in Miami Beach.
Getty Images
A store front window in Miami Beach.

The number of job openings in the U.S. is at a record high, but many of those jobs aren't being filled.

For the first time since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started tracking openings in 2000, employers reported more job openings than hires in the recent JOLTS report for April—an indication that there is a mismatch between the jobs available and potential employees. But the new gap between openings and hires isn't universal. It's driven by a handful of sectors, and one in particular.

Let's take a look at the jobs gap—the number of openings minus the number of hires in a month—broken down by sector. A negative gap means that an industry is advertising more open positions than it is hiring in a month, an indicator that finding workers to fill positions is more difficult in that industry.

It becomes clear that while openings are catching up to hires as the economy recovers, specific industries have far more openings than hires. Out of the 10 private sectors, the biggest negative gap is in education and health services, which includes school and hospital employees.

The education and health services sector alone employs 22 million Americans, or about 16 percent of all employees in the United States. The gap between openings and hires in the sector has been growing, and is now at least 10 times bigger than it was at the end of the recession.

Four other private sectors—manufacturing, professional and business services, information and financial activities—also reported more openings than hires, but the changes were less dramatic. Five other sectors still report fewer openings than hires, suggesting that worker supply is meeting demand in construction, retail, hospitality and mining.

Overall, jobs in education and health services accounted for about 19 percent of the 5.4 million job openings in the U.S. in April, but only 12 percent of the hires. That's 400,000 more advertised jobs than filled positions, compared to a net of about 370,000 for the U.S. as a whole. So most of the new negative gap can be attributed to the shortfall in this one part of the economy.

Much of the widening of the gap has happened since the beginning of 2014, which corresponds to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate, which requires that most Americans have health insurance. But even without that boost, the health care and social assistance sector has been booming, with employment growing by 25 percent in the last decade, compared to 6 percent for the economy overall.

"With the baby boomers advancing in age, they need everything from a specialist all the way down to home health-care aids," said Charlotte Oslund, a BLS statistician. "The demand is there."

Not enough doctors and nurses

Two popular explanations for the recent negative jobs gap are that workers either lack the skills employers are seeking or that employers aren't paying high enough wages to lure in employees.

While the overall effect is surely some combination of those two explanations, the role of the health-care industry in creating the gap suggests that a lack of skilled workers may be a bigger part of the problem.

A series of recent reports by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce have pointed to a massive shortfall in the country's supply of educated health-care workers. The fastest growth going into 2020 will be in professional and technical occupations, like surgeons, psychiatrists and nurses, rather than support roles like home health aids, pharmacy aides and massage therapists.

According to the report, 82 percent of those new health-care jobs will require post-secondary education, including the majority of health-care support roles as well as almost all technical jobs. The Great Recession masked the problem by postponing retirements, but demand has continued to grow.

"As the recovery trudges along, unemployment rates continue to decline, and the ACA enters its full implementation, the nursing shortage problem is expected to resurface," wrote the authors of a 2015 Georgetown report.

We are expected to be short more than 130,000 doctors and 190,000 nurses in five to ten years. That's a lot of help-wanted ads that will continue to go unanswered.