How is it that a county can be suffering from both high unemployment and a labor shortage?
It's not clear, but the consensus of the speakers at Wednesday's Economic Outlook Conference at Sonoma State University is that this is where Sonoma County finds itself.
Although the county unemployment rate recently dropped below 6 percent for the first time in nearly six years, numerous locals are still looking for work while many North Bay companies are looking to fill positions — and both are having a hard time finding what they need.
Craig Nelson, chairman of the board of the Nelson Family of Companies, one of the largest employment service companies in Northern California, said his firm has often had problems finding highly skilled workers to fill job openings. But now they're having troubles filling all positions in the North Bay, including administrative assistants and production workers.
"In some cases, we are going out and finding people who already have jobs," said Nelson, a panelist in a session on this region's future workforce. "I don't know what the issue is, but this is across the board."
Whatever is happening, the panelists appeared to agree that the solution is to be found in local education systems.
Matt Cooper, vice president of business development for oDesk — a company that creates online workspace accessible by individuals in remote locations — said his company did a study on the work expectations of those coming out of college. They found a significant gap between what graduates anticipated their work life would be like — including the expectation that they would be running their own companies in four years — and reality.
Many also are emerging without basic skills they need for today's workplace. Those seeking a high-end job need not only to have developed computational thinking, but they need to have a certain level of persistence, he said.
"What I see are more graduates coming out who have never had to struggle," Cooper said. In an age of helicopter parents, some emerge without having learned the art of failing, a fundamental component in what gives the Bay Area its economic edge on the rest of the world — innovation.
Employers are looking for individuals who not only have the hard skill sets needed to be an engineer or software developer but have the "soft skills" in knowing how to present an idea, make a well-reasoned argument and sell themselves.
Cooper said there's no shortage of book-smart job candidates in the Bay Area. "But," he asked, "how many of them would you actually put in front of a customer?"
All of this exposes the gaps in our current education system that prevent graduates from being ready for this work environment.
By encouraging internships and other partnerships with private industry, colleges such as Sonoma State are clearly trying to bridge these gaps. And based on what I'm seeing through the experiences of my kids, ages 11 and 14, local schools are trying to do the same. More K-12 schools are offering a variety programs such as Odyssey of the Mind, robotics and Academic Decathlon that encourage collaboration, creative thinking and problem-solving. But most are offered only as after-school programs that receive little financial support from the school districts themselves. In most cases, support depends heavily on parents who may not be in a position to write the checks that are needed.