Warm and able bodies. That’s what was in most demand at a job career fair in Randolph recently. The ballroom was filled with companies looking for nursing assistants, home health aides, van drivers, truck drivers’ helpers, part-time salespeople, house cleaners.
“It’s not only skilled workers everyone needs,” said one lonely recruiter at the job fair, hoping to find people to unload trucks at $13 to $14 per hour.
Robots are predicted to lay waste to an assortment of jobs, from highly technical to grunt work. The irony, for now, is we don’t have enough humans, period. Massachusetts finds itself at a remarkable economic moment. Holding us back is an ample supply of labor.
What’s new is the sheer breadth of the worker shortage: From data analysts to baristas, from senior scientists to construction laborers. Among the most in-demand jobs? Human resources personnel. HR chiefs themselves can’t find enough people . . . to find people.
The state’s unemployment rate has hovered near a 17-year lows, but that number (3.9 percent in April) is imprecise, because it doesn’t account for geography, education level, age, and industry sector. The rate is arguably less than zero in several technical niches like cybersecurity and machine learning.
More jobs than people available to fill them: It sounds like a fantasy economy. But it shapes up as a nightmare for companies looking to expand aggressively, never mind keep up with attrition.
It poses an awkward problem for the Commonwealth. For if talent (skilled and otherwise) is the fuel that propels an economy, then there’s a good argument that Boston and environs is at risk for running low on gas. That could mean idling in place or perhaps going in reverse. MassBenchmarks, which tracks the Massachusetts economic trends, recently reported that the economy contracted in the first quarter of the year. The state, MassBenchmarks says, is “facing looming constraints on growth as a result of a shortage of available skilled workers.”
How does one explain the irony of a human capital shortage for one of the world’s greatest producers of college degrees? Shouldn’t we have too many qualified people, with over 100 colleges and universities in Massachusetts producing 100,000-plus graduates a year?
We draw students from all over the world and many don’t or can’t stay after they graduate. Some leave unaware of what Boston can offer them, and many foreign students are desperate to stay but can’t secure a work visa. As a state with a population on the older side (14th oldest in the country), workers are retiring faster than we can replace them. And if immigration to Massachusetts slows, look for an even more severe worker shortage.
Companies do what it takes to find the people they need, waging various talent wars. They poach from competitors. They offer signing and referral bonuses. They grow their own, like Boston-based online retailer Wayfair, with an in-house training program for engineers. Or they expand to other talent centers, domestic or offshore.
Massachusetts needs to be more deliberate about growing its own talent. For starters, it could embrace public higher education as an economic driver in Massachusetts. Although it’s our best chance to address the human capital needs in the state, public higher education funding has declined by 14 percent since 2001.
Massachusetts public higher education is a study in unrealized human potential. At the state’s public four-year colleges, the six-year completion rate is about 60 percent and it’s often around an abysmal 20 percent and lower at community colleges. It’s in everyone’s economic interest — the students, the colleges and the state — to invest in raising college completion rates.
Also, it would help if the world of work were less of an abstraction for both high school and college students. Too often, educational institutions and the private sector are strangers to each other. Connecting students sooner with experiential learning would go a long way. And, for the hundreds of thousands of students who annually migrate to the Boston area, there’s a chance more of them would remain if they had a work experience that led them to imagine a post-college future in Massachusetts.
It’s time to admit that even though we’re a worldwide talent center, we also have a labor problem. If companies can’t find people here, they’ll surely find them elsewhere.
George Donnelly is a communications consultant at Northwind Strategies and the author of “The Boston Economy: Understanding and Accessing One of the World’s Greatest Job Markets.”