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Closing the Skills Gap Becoming a Focus in Cleveland and Washington, D.C.

So many openings for decent-paying jobs; too few workers with the skills to fill them.

That is what the skills gap comes down to.

Policymakers, employers, even jobless workers often point to the mismatch of applicants' skills with available openings as a primary reason that unemployment -- though improving -- remains stubbornly high five years into the recovery. From Cleveland to Washington, D.C., efforts are being made to close the gap.

Locally, companies such as ArcelorMittal in Cleveland and Swagelok Co. in Solon have teamed with Cuyahoga Community College and other schools to set up programs to train workers for positions they are finding hard to fill because, they say, few applicants have the required skills.

In his State of the Union address in January, President Barack Obama called for the country's training programs to be revamped to provide "Americans with the skills employers need, and match them to good jobs that need to be filled right now." On July 22, he signed into law the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, or WIOA, which focuses on employment, education and training. The law reauthorizes the Workforce Investment Act, passed in 1998, which was also concerned with helping companies find skilled workers.

• See a photo gallery from ArcelorMittal.

Supporters of the reauthorization say it has the potential to do a much better job at training people who need to upgrade skills. Among its supporters is U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio. The WIOA includes provisions he lobbied for, including one requiring state and local work force investment boards to come up with strategies for workers to get credentials for jobs in in-demand industries.

"What they need is high-quality credentials, meaning that they are portable -- you can move them around the country," he said. "They are stackable, meaning you can add one to the other to build your career credentials, and they are industry recognized, so you are not spending federal money to train people for something that isn't helpful."

Peter Cappelli, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and author of the book "Why Good People Can't Get Jobs," said efforts focusing on the skills gap to lower unemployment are misdirected. He said the mismatch between skills and available openings isn't substantially higher now than it was before the recession. Cappelli said there are many reasons why openings go unfilled, ranging from employers not paying workers enough to businesses relying too heavily on automated recruiting methods -- especially those that screen resumes and applications using keyword searches -- that end up eliminating good candidates. Addressing these practices would put more people back to work, said Cappelli and others.

"If I told you I went out to buy a car this week, and I didn't find what I was looking for, would you say there is a car gap?" Cappelli asked.

"What we know is that wages aren't going up," he said. "If we would think that there was a real shortage [of skilled workers], we would expect that wages would be going up."

But since the recession, wages -- across the board -- have remained flat or shown little growth. Based on the law of supply and demand, if employers were having such difficulty finding skilled workers, such workers' salaries would have skyrocketed.

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