News From Terre Haute, Indiana

February 24, 2013

Closing the Skills Gap: Against the Odds

Job applicants face an uphill battle when it comes to landing work

Brian Boyce
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Today’s applicants often face odds exceeding 100 to 1 when seeking high-end manufacturing positions, and that’s only if their past doesn’t stop them at the door.

Human resources officers agree that standards are high for many of the jobs open in their industries, as the unemployed and under-employed, alike, struggle to find work amid numerous unfilled positions. The issue of Indiana’s “skill gap” is a topic of concern, but high unemployment rates and low turnover results in fierce competition.

Tom Coffey opened the door to Timothy’s House on Gilbert Avenue, where he serves as volunteer director of the men’s program for Families By Choice. A transitional property for men working their way back into the mainstream from homelessness, the program serves as a family of sorts. Participants care for the home while working on their education and job applications. Residency is limited to two years, and participants must submit at least five employment applications a week, Coffey said.

The 40-year-old was candid about his own struggles finding employment. Armed with a GED, he distributed more than 80 applications as a Families by Choice participant, himself, before landing a full-time job recently. Today, he remains at Timothy’s House, serving as a volunteer director, and has been there 10 months after six months at the Light House Mission not far down the street.

“With the job, it’s usually criminal history and lack of transportation,” he said, explaining barriers faced by many with whom he works.

In the case of transportation, frustration mounts as one needs a job to get a car, and a car to get a job, he said.

“It becomes a Catch 22 in some cases,” he observed, explaining life doesn’t just fall into place once a position is secured after a long period of unemployment. Those periods can leave credit scores in shambles, savings depleted, and possessions like clothing hanging in the closets of repossessed homes.

For people with any kind of criminal record, he said, the process is even more complicated. Coffey found himself in the Light House Mission after a six-month stay in jail, and said that even a misdemeanor charge can preclude one from employment these days.

“It’s a liability question,” he said, adding that from his own experience, as well as that of those he’s helped, crimes related to theft or violence seem to serve as immediate disqualifiers as employers and agencies don’t want the risk. “Anymore, liability has become a big issue for anything.”

But if someone can’t find a legitimate job, chances are he’ll resort to some kind of criminal enterprise to make ends meet, Coffey pointed out, noting this only perpetuates the cycle.

Prior to the full-time job he just obtained, Coffey last worked at a retail store in January 2011 in Putnam County.

Employer-employee matchmaking

Human resources officers say that gaps in employment can prove a major impediment for those seeking jobs.

Lisa Pepperworth, director of human resources at Clabber Girl, serves as president of the Wabash Valley Human Resources Association. She said the skills gap has come up as a major concern among those in her field. A recent survey conducted among her association’s membership identified that issue as a big problem, and one they hope to address.

“There is a skills gap out there,” she emphasized

Even for people with the skills to perform a job, though, competition remains tight. Clabber Girl gets between 160 and 180 applications each week, Pepperworth said, noting they currently have one open position.

“The most common problem we find is they have sketchy work history, or no work history, and those are tough applications to place,” she said.

In general, the long recession and high unemployment rates have resulted in a huge pool of applicants with blank spots on their resumes, she said. And with so many people competing for jobs, it’s tough to work those needing a “second chance” into the mix, even as production ramps up.

The worker screening process heightens the reality for some. Pepperworth said her company uses WorkOne to perform initial screenings, but they also conduct skill tests for observation, reading comprehension and math. In addition to basic math, job candidates must know how to measure, weigh and perform metric conversions. Her company also requires prospective employees to take a drug test after a job offer has been made, and employment is contingent on passing. Criminal background checks and credit scores, depending on the job, are also conducted, with all references and educational data verified.

After 17 years in human resources, Pepperworth said the problem is not new standards, but social changes have served to reduce the pool of qualified applicants. While speaking to a local college class recently, she recalled a full third of students responded that they have an impaired driving conviction on their record.

“I don’t know what to attribute that to,” Pepperworth said, noting it could be a matter of increased law enforcement in recent years, or an increase in underage drinking.

Employers in the driver’s seat

Bryan Jackson, director of human resources at Applied Extrusion Technologies, soon to be Taghleef Industries, said candidates for their entry-level operator positions go through a three-phase testing process, which tends to weed out those with criminal histories or substance abuse problems. The company uses the Wunderlich Test for a cognitive screen, the same test used by the National Football League in its recruitment process, he said. Candidates also take a mechanical test, as well as a structured personality profile test, developed by Purdue University’s industrial psychology program.

Candidates who score well on those three tests rarely have a problem with the mandatory drug screen or background checks, he said, but those checks are still in place. About 5 percent of applicants who pass all three phases still fail the drug screen, Jackson said.

“They have to make it through the process,” he explained, pointing out that AET’s application process is all online now. This serves as an informal screening process in and of itself, as the manufacturing plant is very much online. Operators communicate with supervisors via email, and nearly every aspect of the process is electronic. Candidates without computer skills simply can’t perform the tasks necessary for entry-level factory work anymore, he said.

“They have to be comfortable with those technologies,” Jackson observed.

Requirements for skilled positions, whether electrical or maintenance-related, are more stringent yet, he said.

And given that AET typically gets about 50 applications a week for every entry-level position advertised, the company has its pick. When Pfizer was still open in Terre Haute, the company had to compete a little harder for top candidates, Jackson recalled. But recent years have effectively created a buyer’s market for employers, and candidates with personal problems or a poor work history don’t fare well.

Jackson said the company’s personality inventory test focuses on behaviors. AET, he explained, wants team players.

“Someone we consider to be a positive influence amongst their peers,” he said, adding the company prides itself on low turnover. “That’s really key for us and it’s something we’ve spent a lot of time, energy and money to develop.”

But a positive attitude is often the first thing lost by the unemployed and under-employed, Coffey said.

“No matter what your situation, if you can’t find a job, it’ll affect your self-esteem,” he said.

The social stigma of unemployment, the shame associated with menial labor, and the break up of families over financial instability all add up to misery, he said. Anger issues can easily develop, and as director of the men’s program at Timothy’s House, Coffey said things get rough from time to time among the residents. Drug and alcohol abuse often serve as an escape from the depression, but they only worsen the situation, he said.

Even for those with college degrees and clean records, some job-seekers are not suited for manufacturing opportunities.

“They don’t want to go into manufacturing because they don’t see it as glamorous,” she said, explaining younger people spent their youth and educational resources gearing up for other fields. The education for a career as a stockbroker or banker is not the same kind of skill set needed to operate in a 21st century manufacturing facility, she said.

Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or