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Jobs go unfilled despite high unemployment

At 8.9 percent, unemployment is still high. But in some industries, jobs are available with no skilled workers to fill them.

March 4, 2011

In this Nov. 4, 2010 photo, a job openings board is seen at a career solutions center in Metairie, La. While unemployment remains stubbornly high, jobs in some fields go begging because there aren't enough skilled workers to fill them.

Patrick Semansky/AP/File

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By Bertha Coombs, CNBC.com

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For the 15 million Americans who can’t find jobs, the labor market is like an awful game of musical chairs. There are many more players than there are available seats.

Yet at Extend Health, a Medicare health insurance exchange firm in Salt Lake City, Utah, the problem is just the opposite—a growing number of chairs to fill and not enough people with the skills to fit the jobs.

“It seems like an oxymoron in this environment that you can somehow be challenged to find great workers,” CEO Bryce Williams admits, almost sheepishly.

Extend Health’s call center workers help retirees navigate the process of signing up for commercial Medicare Advantage and drug coverage plans.

For this fall’s Medicare Enrollment season, the firm will need close to a thousand workers. The ideal candidate is over 40, with a background of financial services in order to qualify for insurance licensing.

“They need to be able to pass the state of Utah exam, which is not easy," Williams explains. “They need to have a background in comparing the financial metrics of trying to help someone compare and analyze and give great advice.”

Williams has hired a recruiter, plans to roll out billboards along Interstate 15 in Utah, and is now looking at establishing a new call center out of state where the firm can find more people to train and hire.

“We like being in Utah but at a certain point you max out on the total pool of people that you can tap, “ Williams says. “So, we're going to have to look at other states.”

Part of Williams’ problem is that his business is in a sector that’s facing a skills gap.

A Tight Labor Market For Skilled Jobs

Overall labor demand softened in February, but online ads for computer science jobs were up more than 15 percent from January, according to The Conference Board Help Wanted Online Data Series (HWOL).

While there are more than 25 job seekers for every open position in fields like construction, the exact inverse is true in technology, health and science-related jobs.

For computer science jobs and skilled health care practitioners, there were just over three ads for every job seeker in February. For life sciences jobs like medical science researchers and chemists, the ratio was 2 to 1.

"It’s the equivalent of a seller’s market in real estate,” says Jeanne Shu, HWOL Project Coordinator. While those occupations are seeing a lot of growth, employers are scrambling to find available qualified workers. “If they can't find the right person with the right skill set they'll hold out longer for them."