Lisa Katz| Crain’s Detroit Blog

Good things come to those who wait, but in today’s recovering economy, sometimes waiting too long can mean lost money, time and opportunity. As the Southeast Michigan economy begins to recover, talent shortages are affecting employers looking for science-technology-engineering-and-math (STEM) workers more than the general employer population.

In Southeast Michigan, many signs are pointing to a stronger economy, typically driven by industries and occupations heavily reliant on STEM.  Earlier this month, the Institute for Supply Chain Management reported that Southeast Michigan had experienced three months of rising manufacturing purchasing activity, which foretells continued industry growth. (There was a decline in June, but that is not expected to be prolonged.)  Regional IT companies also are expecting more business activity. As a result, a recent Robert Half Technology survey found that 15 percent of chief information officers who responded plan to grow their IT teams between now and the end of the year.

These positive indicators have been translating into hiring activity. In fact, the Workforce Intelligence Network (WIN) found that the first quarter of 2014 was the first quarter since 2008 where unemployment declined because of job gains instead of a shrinking labor pool. Advanced manufacturing, health care and information technology were leading the pack in employment gains.

But hiring STEM workers has been tough for Southeast Michigan employers and their national counterparts.  This month, the Brookings Institution issued a report finding that, based on an analysis of online job postings in the first quarter of 2013, the median duration to close a STEM vacancy was twice as long as a non-STEM vacancy.  The average time for a Detroit metropolitan STEM employer to close an online posting was 47 days, ranking the region fifth highest among the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas.

Regional STEM occupations that took longest to fill included food preparation and serving occupations (75.2 days, 333 postings); education/training and library occupations (71.6 days, 74 postings); health practitioners and technical fields (59.3 days, 1,004 postings); production occupations (57.3 days, 463 postings); and architecture and engineering (52.3 days, 1,074 postings).

This is tough news for employers, who, on average, spend $3,500 looking for the right employee. As critical STEM workers become harder to find, the cost of recruitment, lost production capacity and other considerations will rise.

Why is it so hard to find the necessary STEM workers? Brookings argues that cause is not likely wages, which, for engineering and computer occupations, have seen nominal and real earning gains rise substantially since 2000. Instead, the think tank points to an insufficient emphasis on company-led education and training, referring to research that shows only 10 percent of firms offer training to existing employees to overcome talent shortages. (A recent WIN blog noted that the average firm spends more on coffee per day than it does on training its workers.) WIN analysis also points to a lack of interest in these fields among newer generations of workers.

Brookings further suggests that the current skill crisis in STEM fields is not a new phenomenon, arguing that the Great Recession caused a temporary reduction in the skills shortage, with companies cutting back on their need for workers. As the economy recovered, employers began again to feel the pinch of a long-term talent shortage.

Share On