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There Is a Skills Gap...Just How Big?

Monday, 22 Oct 2012 | 7:13 AM ET

Have you heard about the so-called skills gap?

That's the cute term for the notion that employers have jobs, but just can't find people with the right education or abilities to fill them. (We journalists love cute terms such as "skills gap." Like "fiscal cliff" and "mancession," it's catchy headline shorthand for a pretty serious issue).

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Now there's a kind of duel over it. You see, most "skills gap" arguments center on a 2011 survey by the consulting firm Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute. That survey of executives found that the skills gap is responsible for about 600,000 jobs going unfilled.

But last week the Boston Consulting Group said the skills gap is not so bad and that only 80,000 to 100,000 jobs are going unfilled because of it. It's analysis is based on wage and inflation rates around the country. Where wages outstripped local inflation, that's where employers were paying more to get talent.

It's hard to say who is right. Deloitte relied on a survey, which can be a little subjective, and BSG crunched wage and inflation numbers, which can overlook softer, less measured trends.

But there seems to be plenty of anecdotal evidence around that some sort of "skills gap" exists. We have had plenty of CEOs complaining about it over the last couple of years on CNBC, be it in tech areas or energy production or transportation.

"You have to have a qualified workforce," said Cummins CEO Tim Solso. "One of the biggest challenges (in the U.S.) is to find a workforce that has the technical skills and mathematical and science skills so they can operate machinery and do technical work."

So there is a skills gap of some sort. And regardless of the degree to which skilled workers are lacking, in our employment-starved economy, that strikes everyone as a lost opportunity.

What to do about it? Here, too, the consultants pointing at the large-or-small skills gap seem to lean different ways.

Deloitte suggests steps to retain older workers and keep them in the mix. BSG advocates more recruitment and company training for critical skill areas. (Some companies, like General Electric and Alcoa, are already jumping on that).

Most likely it will take a mix of these measures.

Indeed, we may need to take a look beyond "skills" and into basics: Over half of the companies questioned in an April human resource survey said that basic professionalism and work ethic was a problem with their younger workers.

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Allen Wastler is managing editor of CNBC.com. Follow him on Twitter @AWastler. You can catch his commentary on CNBC Radio. And check out his fiction.

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