These days, few things in our nation look as they did in the early weeks of the year. But as our nation’s attention begins to shift toward what recovery might look like and educators, policymakers, and workforce development leaders discern where to focus their efforts, a wave of news from February 2020 might hint at a path forward.

Back then, the White House made an announcement that was, at the time, eye-popping for education institutions and training providers. It recommended a $900 million increase in funding for career and technical education. It was believed to be the field’s biggest funding boost ever.

Since then, millions of Americans have lost jobs, and most people who say they would need more education to find a new one believe they also would change career fields. But before anyone rushes into a new education or training program — or the government invests widely in retraining — we need to ensure people build the right skills that will result in a job now.

The best way to do that is to bring labor market analysis close to home. Just as local leaders are on the front lines guiding the coronavirus response that fits their region’s needs, our economic response also can benefit from taking a local view of the skills most needed by today’s workers and employers.

Long before any of us knew what “social distancing” meant, experts were concerned about a growing skills gap in the United States, driven largely by changes in technology. And now, in the wake of the pandemic, that gap could be exacerbated. Workers who have lost jobs in industries that have been upended may seek employment in new fields. As job tasks evolve or, in some cases, dramatically shift, many Americans will need skill-based training to keep up.

But as we consider ways to address this skills gap, we need to remember that there is no “national” market for skills. Instead, each region of the country contends with a unique set of labor market dynamics. A recent analysis of real-time labor market data by Emsi and the Strada Institute for the Future of Work found that “skill shapes” vary widely across regions. The skills that one region lacks, another may have in abundance.  

That tells us that we don’t just need to address a skills gap. We need to watch out for a skills surplus, too. 

Take cybersecurity as an example. As nearly every aspect of our lives moves online (virtual cocktail hour, anyone?), we should all be concerned when we hear about a persistent skills gap in the field. In the past year, the United States saw a talent shortfall of 158,000 information security analysts, cybersecurity’s largest job. And in a recent survey, 71 percent of employers said that a cybersecurity skills shortage is damaging their organizations. 

But when you zoom in at the local level, what looks like a shortage could actually be a surplus. The analysis from Strada Institute for the Future of Work and Emsi found a surplus of certain skills among cybersecurity professionals in Indianapolis, for example. In this area, professionals with data warehousing skills were clogging the market, while there were gaps in various information security certifications.

Surpluses generally appear in lopsided markets, where there are too many jobseekers with skills concentrated in the wrong areas. They’re most apparent when considering the labor market from the jobseeker’s perspective, and help explain why the prospects of even the most qualified professionals can vary so much across industries and regions. (That doesn’t mean, however, that skills surpluses are good for employers. A skills surplus in one area usually leads to a shortage in other key areas.) 

As we enter a time when jobs are more scarce, a skills surplus can undermine employment prospects even further. But once jobseekers understand the skill shapes in their region, they can identify which skills will help them secure stable employment and avoid wasting their time and money on something employers aren’t asking for.  

Skill shapes also give education providers a better understanding of how to provide more tailored, just-in-time learning that is attuned to regional needs. Now that day-to-day life is leaving many of us exhausted — and a full-time degree program seems far out of reach — these precision education programs will be the most effective and efficient way to build in-demand skills.

The last thing we need during this crisis is for workers and employers to invest their scarce resources developing the same skills others in their community already offer, leaving other, more vital skill needs unfilled. Paying attention to local skill shapes — gaps and surpluses included — can guide the education and employment pathways that will help our economy recover from its current turmoil.

End of Article