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Got skills?

A coming wave of jobs - no, really - will mean 'help wanted' across a range of professions. How American firms and workers can prepare for the ride.

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Fowler looks beyond his own company, too. He participates in local workforce-development initiatives and advocates for everything from education reform to more government funding for training. He worries about all the people still being left behind. One day a young Latino came in and asked the receptionist if he could take an application home. She asked him to fill it out in an adjacent room, because the company uses the form as a literacy screen. When he came out, two hours later, he left it with her and scurried out. He had written only his name. Fowler heard the story when he happened by the receptionist's desk and noticed she had been crying.

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A management-skills deficiency

Such skills gaps are showing up nationwide - and at all levels of hiring and employment. About 60 percent of employers test job applicants in some form, and 38 percent are deficient in basic reading and math, according to the American Management Association. At the management level, the AMA also reports shortcomings in conceptual skills, communication, and problem solving.

That's of particular concern, because by 2013, the EPF report says, nearly 40 percent of US jobs will be professional or managerial.

"When I speak to audiences of senior executives, I ask how many companies are experiencing difficulty right now in filling critical positions, and between 70 and 80 percent of the hands go up," says Roger Herman, lead author of "Impending Crisis: Too Many Jobs, Too Few People" and CEO of the Herman Group consulting firm in Greensboro, N.C.

But with some executives struggling to keep their companies afloat in a rocky economy, it's not easy to get them to think strategically about the future workforce crunch.

Training and development of employees are often the first areas to be cut, and companies rarely measure how that might be hurting their bottom line, according to a recent study by Accenture, a New York consulting firm.

It's also difficult to project more than a few years ahead. No one knows for sure if technological advances will create more jobs than they make obsolete. And, of course, if the economy unexpectedly nosedives, a labor shortage won't be the problem.

But barring such dramatic events, closing the skills gap will require a combination of educational gains, more immigration, increased productivity, and higher participation in the workforce, the EPF report concludes.

Everyone's standard of living is on the line. One measure is the growth in per capita personal income (all income divided by the total population). Currently it's about $31,000. By 2033, that could double to $63,000 after adjusting for inflation, the EPF forecasts. But if a labor and skills gap persists, it might reach only $50,000.

A call for more immigration may raise eyebrows, because this period of higher unemployment has caused resentment to rise. But to say that immigrants are "taking jobs" is misleading, Dr. Zey says. "We're not filling them."

At the same time, he says, it's important to change cultural attitudes in the US that discourage people from learning math and technical skills - areas in which firms have sought special visas for foreign employees. "You have to correct the system, not just go for a global brain drain," Zey says.

To attract and retain workers and develop their skills, experts say firms will probably turn to a range of solutions including more on-the-job training and mentoring, better child-care assistance, a return to incentives such as signing bonuses, and more openness to hiring people with disabilities.

A collaborative effort

In the late 1980s, with companies like Fowler's clamoring for better- educated workers, representatives of local government, businesses, and schools formed the Holyoke Employment Partnership. It's facilitated by the city's Chamber of Commerce and has been cited as a national model.

"I've been in this business for 25 years, and I have never seen this level of collaboration," says David Gadaire, director of CareerPoint, a career- development center set up by the HEP.

In addition to helping match people up with jobs and adult education, the center runs programs with business partners to improve workers' or applicants' skills. Fowler's company and other factories, for instance, developed a curriculum known as Manufacturing 101. Most participants went on to work successfully in those companies, Mr. Gadaire says. The HEP has also developed ways for healthcare workers to advance in their careers, which should reduce turnover in the many local hospitals and nursing homes.