Oakes2by Debra Oakes, WMEP director of marketing

The Skills Gap: Is it real or isn’t it?

That’s the question that continues to arise around the hot topic of a perceived employee skills gap for manufacturers. Although scores of companies claim that they continue to struggle to find qualified candidates to fill open positions, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee continues to question the validity of the skills gap argument.

A panel discussion at the Manufacturing Matters! conference on Feb. 27 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Milwaukee will feature Marc Levine, a professor in the history department at UWM who formerly led the school’s Center for Economic Development.. Levine authored a controversial research report released earlier this year entitled “The Myth of the Skills Gap in Wisconsin.” The report concluded that the state faces a jobs gap, not a skills gap.

Levine argues that if Wisconsin does indeed suffer from a skills gap, workers with desired talents and experience would see their wages jump. To the contrary, pay has fallen, even for supposedly in-demand workers, including trained welders.

“There are chronic complaints among manufacturers and the vast majority of policy makers and politicians believe that there is a skills gap. So why is there such a disconnect with research on the subject?” Levine said.

Levine, who will be appearing at Manufacturing Matters! for the first time, believes the struggles manufacturers are having in filling open positions may stem more from their recruiting practices, expectations, and insufficient pay and not a deficit in skills among prospective employees.

It may be a case of manufacturers seeking to find the “purple squirrel,” a metaphor used by recruiters to highlight unrealistic expectations among client companies, Levine said.

“Are expectations too high? Are you investing in training and recruiting? Some of those who are the loudest complainants about a skills gap are paying non-competitive wages,” he said.

Recruitment woes likely have been exacerbated by manufacturers that have outsourced their human resources operations, he added.

Levine will be joined on the panel by Mary Isbister, president of GenMet Corp., a Mequon-based custom metal fabricator. Isbister, who serves as chairwoman of the WMEP’s board of directors, insists that the skills gap is very much a real problem for her firm, which has struggled at times to fill open positions. Although GenMet, which Isbister purchased with her husband in 1999, has expanded in recent years, the struggle to find workers has stunted the company’s growth, she says.

The panel also will feature another yet-to-be-announced manufacturing leader.

Buckley Brinkman, CEO/executive director of the WMEP, will moderate the discussion.

“I view this as an opportunity to have some real dialogue on this issue,” Levine said.