The “attitude gap” and unemployment

When he hears discussion in the news of long-term unemployment, Paul Jensen grows frustrated. He owns Jensales, a small business a few miles outside Albert Lea in southern Minnesota. The business prints and sells technical manuals — and it does commercial printing as well. Jensen also owns the local newspaper, The Alden Advance. He currently employs 12 people and has two more openings he’s trying to fill: a bookkeeper and a printing assistant. The problem is he can’t find anyone.

These aren’t entry-level jobs, but they don’t require a lot of experience either. It’s these mid-level jobs that he’s found particularly hard to fill. He’s worked with placement agencies and the Minnesota Workforce Center, and he’s posted ads in the newspapers to no avail.

The root of the problem, as he sees it, is both a skills gap and an attitude gap. Jensen’s seen the skill gap addressed in discussions of unemployment in the media and among employers, but he wants to see community colleges and workforce centers react more quickly to the problem. He doesn’t expect people to have all the skills necessary to do the job. All he’s looking for is a base level of knowledge that he can build on with on-the-job training.

The more worrying problem to Jensen, however, is what he calls “the attitude gap.” Jensen says, “People come in wanting the same job they had in 2008. The fact is, those jobs are gone.”

As a small business owner, Jensen can’t afford to offer health benefits. He tries to compensate employees in other ways, by allowing flexibility with family commitments and allowing them to work from home. He points to the fact that over half of his employees have worked for him for more than 10 years as a sign that they are satisfied.

Jensen also sees an unwillingness to move to a smaller town like Albert Lea. “People aren’t thinking outside the bubble. But living down here is cheap, schools are good and there’s almost no crime.”

And he says the problem is not just here in Minnesota. He’s a commanding officer of a naval reserve unit out of San Diego, made up of 150 people from across the country. He’s seen many of them struggle with job loss and several of them have that same “attitude gap.” One of the men in his unit had been unemployed for two years but had turned down a number of jobs.

“It’s frustrating. At a certain point you have to accept the fact that the jobs are different and you can’t have the same job you had a few years ago. And you can’t be so specialized. You have to do a little of everything.”

If you’re an employer, what are you seeing? Have you seen a skill or attitude gap?

To look at it from the employee side, check out this map that my colleague Paul Tosto put together yesterday. We asked people in the Public Insight Network who have dealt with unemployment to tell us about their search for work in this economy and what they’ve learned. Many of the people who responded did indeed take jobs that were not the same as the ones they had in 2008, some even taking significant pay cuts in order to find work.

View How’s it going in Minnesota’s job market? in a full screen map