The Daily Davos

01.27.12

The Missing Agenda

Are leaders missing the real point?

The World Economic Forum has a history of missing the point. The annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, months in planning, can end up mired in issues that were relevant ages ago instead of anticipating what comes next. Case in point: last year’s meeting, caught flat-footed by the Arab Spring uprisings.

This year, the meeting has done a better job of addressing the issues everybody is actually talking about in the hallways: Europe’s financial meltdown and the future of the global economy. But the deafening chatter about the financial crisis may be drowning out an equally urgent issue, one that will likely dominate the agenda next year and beyond: the skill-set mismatch between what companies need and what people looking for work can offer.

“We think the talent-and-skills mismatch will become more acute. That’s a structural change,” says Jonas Prising, the president of the Americas for the staffing company ManpowerGroup, who notes that the U.S. lags far behind other countries in science and technology, areas where new jobs are most likely to be created.

Already, PricewaterhouseCoopers chairman Robert Moritz has heard from “CEOs who have now said, ‘I have taken a different strategic path, because I didn’t have the skill set in this organization.’” He expects the problem to intensify and lists “the need for a better appreciation for the talent-skill-set mismatch that’s out there” as one of top two wish-list items to accomplish at this year’s meeting, along with focusing on solutions for Europe.

President Obama noted the impending crisis in his State of the Union address Tuesday while pitching his plan to use community colleges to retrain workers: “Growing industries in science and technology have twice as many openings as we have workers who can do the job. Think about that—openings at a time when millions of Americans are looking for work. That’s inexcusable.”

At Davos, the issue is tangentially on the agenda, with sessions on youth unemployment. A few participants, including Harvard’s Larry Summers, have raised it, too. But considering how large the issue will loom going forward in the U.S.—and even more so abroad, with youth unemployment rates in some countries topping 40 percent or even 50 percent—you’d think this problem would make a lot more noise around here.