The economy is sputtering, and companies say they will make nothing but perfect-10 hires. Meanwhile, Baby Boomers are retiring by the millions -- and everyone wants to be a millionaire, not a wage earner. Where does all this leave employers and workers in their never-ending struggle to tip the balance in the American labor market?
From the perspective of an annual survey commissioned by staffing firm Manpower, these dynamics yield a number of occupations for which openings are hard to fill. Among white-collar jobs, the following positions make Manpower's 10 Hardest Jobs to Fill list: engineers, nurses, teachers, sales reps, technicians and IT staff. And on the blue-collar side, skilled tradespeople, drivers, laborers, and machinists and machine operators make the top 10.
But labor-market power has shifted toward employers with the soft economy. And many experts, especially labor advocates, take issue with the Manpower study's conclusion that all these occupations are in shortage. "Our starting point at EPI is where most economists would start: If you don't have low unemployment and rising wages, you don't have a shortage," says Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).
So if you work in one of these occupations -- or want to -- what's the real story? Let's take a look at the survey results and get some perspective on what the shortages really mean.
White-Collar Occupations Blow in the Winds of Economic Change
Even as thousands of IT jobs continue to be offshored each year, demand for software developers, systems engineers and network administrators is strong, according to the Manpower survey.
"One of the challenges that IT departments face is finding people who are well-rounded, can communicate with the lines of business and can manage," says Melanie Holmes, a vice president at Manpower North America.
With fuel prices spiking and oil and natural gas exploration heating up, demand for petroleum engineers is rising. Offshoring notwithstanding, "engineering is going to be around for awhile," says Holmes. "Oil companies have employees averaging in their late 40s."
Eisenbrey says EPI data shows labor shortages in a number of white-collar niches, from healthcare workers to librarians, farm managers, engineering managers and environmental scientists.
Some Blue-Collar Jobs Go Unfilled Even as Their Numbers Drop
Even after decades of manufacturing decline, employment of machinists is expected to drop by 3 percent between 2006 and 2016, according to the BLS.
"We're at the very beginning of that decline; we haven't necessarily gotten there yet," says Holmes. "Even if machinists are declining, applicants are in short supply. Kids are not getting excited about going to tech and vocational schools."
Labor advocates paint a different picture. "Employers are still not willing to pay what's required," says Eisenbrey. "It's a shortage only at the rate that employers want to pay."
The skilled trades, especially in construction, rank high among blue-collar jobs that are hard to fill, according to the Manpower survey. Carpenters, welders, plumbers, electricians and masons are in demand, the survey says.
But Eisenbrey questions the validity of these conclusions. "It doesn't make sense that jobs for construction workers and laborers are hard to fill," he says. "Wages are declining in most of these occupations; 365,000 of those workers have been laid off in the last 12 months." In April 2008, as the housing crisis played out, construction employment declined by 61,000 jobs, according to preliminary data from the BLS.
Even in our digital age, stuff still needs to get from here to there, whether the trip is across the warehouse floor or around the world. That's why jobs for laborers such as freight, stock and materials handlers are projected to increase by almost a quarter of a million positions from 2004 to 2014, according to the BLS. Many of these jobs require few skills but pay $12 to $15 an hour, about double the federal minimum wage, which will rise to $7.25 per hour effective July 24, 2009.