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This CEO Desperately Needs Employees with Technical Skills

The latest unemployment datashow that job growth in August was anemic with only 96,000 jobs created. The unemployment rate, however, declined from 8.3% to 8.1% as the number of people in the workforce declined.

Bernhard Lang | Getty Images

But the current unemployment statistics obscure one simple fact: unemployment for people with technical skills is much lower than it is for the balance of the workforce.

As the CEO of a beverage company, I see that every time we need to hire new employees. If we are looking for sales or marketing people – even finance people – we will have far more qualified candidates for the roles than we need.

But if we try to fill technical roles – such as Information Technology (IT), engineers, electrical and instrumentation technicians – we struggle to find enough qualified candidates to meet our needs. I have seen this when we have recruited college graduates for salaried positions and when we recruited high school graduates for hourly positions.

In fact, we are now in the process of hiring incremental engineers for our plants and the search has taken twice as long as we had anticipated. People with the right mastery who were willing to live in the cities where we have plants were not easy to find. And we are also hiring hourly technicians to run a very high tech production line. We have to screen 30-40 candidates to find one person with the right combination of skills, attitude and aptitude, and with no significant blemishes in their background. Our ability to meet our production goals is impacted by this difficulty.

As a parent, I have seen the same phenomenon. Even with unemployment among recent college graduates very high, I saw a virtual gold rush on the campus of MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) where my son is a math and computer science major. Employers were offering very high salaries and attractive internships, and students were starting new businesses at an amazing clip. The students there excel in math and physics, computer science and biology, engineering and materials science, and so much more. I sat in a recruiting session with my son and watched employers practically beg students to work for them – plying them with free food, T-shirts, big salaries and stock options. Clearly, they have the skills that employers need today.

This phenomenon has been around for a long time. I graduated from college with a degree in history and East Asian Studies. The engineers in my class all had jobs wrapped up by Christmas of their senior year and those of us with non-technical degrees had to simultaneously do a job search and apply to graduate school as a back-up in case an attractive job did not materialize. In boom times, jobs tended to appear. But in poor economic environments like the one we have now, lots of students ended up in graduate school in hopes that they could wait out the economic cycle before entering the workforce.

A recent study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce confirmed this. Unemployment rates for college graduates who make technology were significantly lower than for those who use technology (6% vs. 11.2%). A separate study from the Center took this conclusion further and proved the earnings power difference. That study showed that not only do technology creators make more money than those who are not – but those who have an associate’s degree in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) earn more than those who have a bachelor’s degree in a non-STEM major.

Given these economic realities, one has to wonder why we don’t have more students pursuing technical degrees. In fact, it makes me wonder how I survived without a technical degree. But I entered the workforce in the economic boom of the mid-1980s when jobs were plentiful and we had not yet entered the computer driven technical revolution we find ourselves in today. I don’t think I would be nearly as lucky today as I was then.

As an employer who desperately needs employees with technical skills, our choices are slim. Our first option is to recruit employees who have the skills – but that can be expensive and take lots of time. The competition for graduates with those skills can be intense and hiring one away from another employer can be very difficult.

Our second choice is to invest in training for the employees we have with the aptitude and desire to master technical skills. We recently made the decision to do more of that – hiring incremental staffing so that we could afford to send employees to technical schools. We haven’t done this in years but we have found it to be increasingly necessary in order to insure that we have adequate staffing to run our increasingly sophisticated equipment and computer systems. Our third choice—which we have not yet pursued-- will likely include forming partnerships with educational institutions where we can provide training opportunities to students while simultaneously insuring a steady supply of workers with the skills we need.

Each of those choices is a reasonable solution for an individual company like ours. But the solution for the United States will require a much more comprehensive plan. For years, American companies have filled the technical talent gap with offshoring and through the huge influx of talented immigrants who arrive here in search of technical degrees. And there has been a fair amount of educational innovation – particularly with the expansion of community colleges and for-profit education. But we need to do more – and earlier- in the educational career of our students. Too many students opt out of technical training too early in their career. We need to find ways to make technical training more interesting very early on or we will face the technical talent gap for a long time.

Billy Cyr is the President and CEO of the Sunny Delight Beverages Co., a manufacturer and marketer of juices, juice drinks and flavored waters under the Sunny Delight, Fruit2O, Veryfine, FruitSimple, Bossa Nova, Elations and Crystal Light brand names. Billy led the carve-out of Sunny Delight from Procter & Gamble in 2004 with the backing of the private equity firm JW Childs Associates.

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