America's bustling jobs market is still leaving some people behind

Key Points
  • The U.S. continues to create jobs at a solid pace, with Friday's nonfarm payrolls report showing a gain of 196,000 in March.
  • For some workers, though, employment is hard to find either because of tight labor markets or a lack of specialized skills.
  • Employers have been placing additional emphasis on training current employees rather than hiring new ones.
Commuters in a subway station in New York.
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Friday's jobs report provided some much-needed relief for those worried that the U.S. economy was in a slow walk toward recession.

But for those in the labor market, employers and job seekers alike, the details are more complicated.

Despite the addition of 196,000 nonfarm jobs in March, the country faces a tight labor market, with a million more job openings than there are eligible workers to fill them. That dynamic is complicated by a pool of workers that lacks the skills for some of the jobs available.

Jobs number should calm fears over sharp economic slowdown, says Goldman Sachs economist
Jobs number should calm fears over sharp economic slowdown, says Goldman Sachs economist

And that's cut both ways for workers who have skills but can't seem to find the right jobs to fit their qualifications.

Take Yolanda Summers, a 40-year-old Dallas resident who went back to college to get a finance degree but has struggled since then to get work in her field.

For folks like her, the headlines about a jobs market bursting at the seams don't resonate for conditions she says feel like "a recession."

"I find it strange. I keep hearing stories and news reports about there being so many jobs, that there are employers having such a difficult time finding skilled workers," Summers said. "I know so many people who are having a different experience. I just can't put the two together."

The Dallas-Forth-Worth-Arlington region is one of the most bustling markets in the country. Over the past year, payrolls in the region rose by 100,100, or 3 percent, making it one of 53 regions to post net gains and the second-fastest-growing market in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment rate for the region is 3.9 percent, on par with the national rate.

But Summers said those numbers point up how crowded the market is and how much competition there is for job openings. She's likely to relocate as she continues her employment search, though for now she's taken a job at a collections firm that she says is "a fill-in position that helps me get by."

"I'm not discouraged, because I know that I can find work in my field," she said. "I just think I have to be more mobile, more willing to move and work outside of Dallas. I've started applying in other states and other cities, so that's what I'm going to do."

Job postings slow

There are other signs that the market is changing.

Glassdoor, a site that helps connect workers with jobs and provides information and working conditions and salaries, has seen a significant drop-off in job postings this year. Whereas the first quarter usually sees about a 5% to 15% increase over the previous year, 2019 has been flat.

"I think that's quite unusual. Digging into sectors behind it, it's fairly broad based," said Andrew Chamberlain, Glassdoor's chief economist. "The economy is flashing a yellow light but not a red light. This is something I think it's time to just watch closely."

Employers trying to overcome that skills mismatch are using various strategies.

Middle-market companies, for instance, are focusing on retaining current employees with an emphasis on training them to do the kinds of jobs that are in demand and in other times might go to better-skilled workers brought in from the outside, according to a recent study by SunTrust Bank.

The survey found 46 percent of respondents concerned with attracting and retaining employees. When discussing strategies to keep workers, 45 percent say they increased wages, 43 percent provided better benefit packages, 36 percent came up with more flexible working arrangements and just 24 percent brought in outside workers that needed training.

"We're seeing people get really creative with how they make sure they have the right team on the field. It's no longer just about going out and trying to find it," said Jason Cagle, SunTrust's head of commercial banking. "People have pivoted their thinking: How do we make sure we don't lose anybody? How do we invest in our own teammates?"

Cagle said companies including SunTrust in markets like Summers' Dallas are coming up with ways to retain workers and are not necessarily bringing in new hires as technology continues to grow and the demand for more sophisticated skills increases.

"We spend an incredible amount of time investing our teammates in leadership development, cross-training across different areas of the bank," he said. "That's just a very different dynamic than years ago."