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The Discrepancy Between Unemployment Rate and Job Openings

I first ran this column six years ago. Although the starting wages are a bit higher today, the situation is possibly worse after the pandemic. 

We’ve scratched our heads for years at countless economic development meetings wondering how we can have unemployment in Southeast Kansas and yet companies say, “We have jobs and no one wants to work.” The same companies have trouble with their employees’ “soft skills” or lack thereof. Many area companies offer decent pay scales and benefits, but many do not and much of the work of the biggest complainers is repetitive and unappealing. The following classified ad actually appeared in a local paper a few months (years) ago. I haven’t seen this one lately, but I suspect the conditions are the same, but the ad has been changed.

The ad said: “Now Hiring; Must be able to work 40 hours a week plus scheduled overtime. Ability to work in extreme heat, noisy areas, lifting 45lbs, lifts to waist and chest with some overhead lifting, continuous bending and stretching, pushing, stooping, and twisting, and pulling in excess of 50 lbs. Standing/walking on concrete for 8 – 12 hours. Operation of fork truck may be required.  Wages start at $11 & $12.  Benefits available.”  

The jobs listed offer no hope of advancement and from your $12 per hour you have to purchase your own benefits.

We began moving toward jobs like this, away from being independent farmers, merchants, and entrepreneurs after the Civil War. The devastation in the south, the industrial revolution in the north, and a recession or two in the late 19th century started a transition away from self-sufficiency to a dependency (sometimes today we call it learned helplessness) on the steady income resulting from repetitive factory work. Workers weren’t expected to use their brains to think of anything new, only to have the bare knowledge to do the repetitive, many times back-breaking work of the job without complaint. The schools--and I mean the big ones, Harvard, Yale, and the others, helped industry and the government design K-12 school curriculum that taught rank and file students just enough to do repetitive production work and be happy about having a job.

Now comes the “entrepreneurial revolution” starting in the 1990’s with the advent of the Internet and a world full of people wanting a piece of the American market. Global economies characterized by entrepreneurs and creative thinkers along with factories using robotics and automation to stay competitive are becoming the norm.  The companies that will survive this new economic game will need workers that think creatively and be active contributors to solving their customers’ problems.

At the same time, most people today want to work in an environment where they are appreciated and can contribute in a positive way to solving the problems of the company; not so much interested in “continuous bending and stretching, pushing, stooping and twisting, and pulling in excess of 50 lbs.”

The entire answer is complex, but companies will continue to have increased difficulty in filling the repetitive, menial jobs like the listing above even if the pay is higher. There are vendors that can help provide automated, robotic solutions for the “pushing, stooping and twisting” at a lower cost than the $11 - $12 (and even $13 to $15) hourly wages and related workers compensation claims and premiums.

No matter how good our technical training programs, they can’t possibly cover the scores, if not hundreds of disciplines needed in today’s marketplace. They need to provide a well-rounded introduction of topics and disciplines, including robotics, electronics, automation, machining, welding, coatings, character, conflict resolution, communication and entrepreneurial mindset which is all about critical thinking and problem solving.

Some of today’s ads say “We will train the right person.” What is the right person? The person that’s been introduced to a variety of technologies, thus demonstrating their ability to learn new things without fear. The entrepreneurial mindset, in the right work environment, will provide for the soft skills and work ethic for which employers yearn.


Jim Correll can be reached at (620) 252-5349 or by email at jcorrell@indycc.edu. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Fab Lab ICC or Independence Community College. Archive columns and podcasts at www.fablabicc.org.


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