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Owen Suggests Workforce Problem Isn’t Skills Gap, But Character Gap

But wait! David Owen of the South Dakota Chamber of Commerce is telling folks that South Dakota doesn’t lack people; it just lacks skills:

It’s not that we lack people; it’s that we have a whole bunch of people that don’t have the skills we need in the marketplace. So how do we reëducate adults? How do we direct students to where their passion and interests might be when social norms suggest they might go to college? [David Owen, “Workforce Development Slow Process,” WNAX Radio, 2019.04.11].

Now when David Owen speaks of in-demand skills, I think of all sorts of specific tech skills that require specialized training: welding, diesel mechanicry, medical technology, network management, data mining. But tech skills aren’t what Owen has in mind in his conversation with WNAX. Heck, he’s not even thinking of the durable and flexible critical thinking and communication skills that I contend are good reason to maintain and strengthen our focus on the humanities. South Dakota’s skills gap is apparently far more fundamental:

…the soft skills: is ready to show up to work every day on time and maybe stay all day, with the proper attitude about being productive. These are all things that are difficult when unemployment is very low, and they are all things that almost defy simple solutions [Owen, 2019.04.11].

Show up on time, work all shift, get stuff done—those aren’t even soft skills; those are expectations I thought went without saying in any workplace. That’s not a skills gap; that’s laziness. Turning all of our universities into vocational schools teaching industry-demanded technical skills won’t solve that character gap. Maybe only a kick in the pants will.

But are good, upright South Dakotans really sacrificing their vaunted South Dakota values and slacking off en masse at work? Have we really turned into a bunch of lazy bums who can’t get done the things the Chamber of Commerce needs done? Or are there really just not enough of us to not only do the jobs but give employers options when they find themselves saddled with a goldbricker?

Or is it possible that South Dakota employers are getting full value for their dollar but still aren’t paying enough dollars to deserve full effort?

Don’t forget, David: as anyone who has bought cheap furniture from Shopko will tell you, you get what you pay for.


  1. South DaCola 2019-04-12 09:52

    As I tell the City Council at Public Input as much as possible, we don’t have a ‘workforce development’ issue in Sioux Falls, we have a ‘Wage issue’. I have often argued that if we just paid higher wages we wouldn’t have an affordable housing or food shortage crisis anymore. Next time I run into David, I will kindly bring this up.

  2. grudznick 2019-04-12 10:16

    Mr. H is righter than right. Show up on time and work harder if you want more money. These lazy people today want to work less and get money for standing around and leave early to toke up doobies. Stop whining and work harder, that’s all you have to do.

  3. Certain Inflatable Recreational Devices 2019-04-12 11:18

    David Owen has been taking lessons from Voodoo Steve.

  4. grudznick 2019-04-12 11:27

    One idea for people with a skills gap is to work as a corporate narc. It’s easy, the pay is great, you get to travel the world on the man’s dime, and you get to eat a lot of free gas station hot dogs. Unfortunately there are only so many of those jobs to go around.

  5. Donald Pay 2019-04-12 11:43

    I wouldn’t call it laziness, Cory. Owen isn’t talking about specific soft skills, but just some of the end results of having a set of soft skills, but it’s much more complicated than that. It depends some on non-work variables that often can’t be controlled, especially if the worker is a single parent or poor.

    Showing up for work on time and working all shift is one that employers should be able to count on, but it’s one that depends on a lot of issues, including child care, transportation, school closures, medical issues, etc. It’s not an issue of “re-education,” but of people having complicated lives that often don’t conform to someone else’s idea of what they should do. If you have a sick kid, do you stay with the child or do you leave the kid alone? The responsible thing to do is to stay with the child, and not be a slave to the job.

    Jobs that have steady shifts are much easier for people to schedule around, but a lot of people working in retail and restaurants get jerked around, often without much notice. It’s not their fault if the manager is a jerk.

    Believe me, there are a lot of power mad assistant managers who think they can abuse workers. In most places, the problems start at the top, with management that doesn’t treat or pay workers well. If you make the place a good place to work, you’ll attract good employees.

    Here’s a trick that gets pulled a lot. An employee wants to work more, but management refuses to give him more than 20 or 35 hours to prevent the employee from qualifying for benefits. Employers do more to squelch good work habits than any worker can think up.

    Owen needs to work on where the real problems lie: at the top levels and middle management. The problem usually isn’t at the worker level. It’s much higher up.

  6. Donald Pay 2019-04-12 11:53

    There are employers who demand workers work off the clock. This happens a lot in chain restaurants. It’s a violation of state and federal law, but it happens all the time. It also happens in banks and insurance companies and many other places where they force people to go on salary and then demand they work 60-80 hours per week. Being coerced to work off the clock is slavery. Maybe Owen should go after those folks, rather than workers.

  7. LS1 2019-04-12 12:36

    It’s critically important to differentiate between mere “laziness” and folks whose circumstances make it difficult for them to work in a traditional setting with traditional hours.

    As another commenter pointed out, plenty of people (single parents, people with disabilities, caregivers, people who struggle with “executive functions,” etc) can’t meet employer standards not because they’re lazy but because of other things happening in their lives. If we want to pull more people into the workforce we have to rethink what qualifications are absolutely necessary and let go of the idea that anyone who doesn’t conform to sometimes arbitrary requirements is simply lazy.

    On top of that, there are plenty of ways we as a society fail workers – whether by having inaccessible public transit, paying wages below what is livable, refusing to require paid sick or parental leave, sharing work schedules on short notice, crafting affirmative protections for pregnant or breastfeeding employees, refusing to consider candidates with criminal records, etc. There are many things our legislature could do to ease these burdens on modern workers – and heck, the Chamber could push for those! – but I won’t hold my breath.

  8. 96Tears 2019-04-12 12:58

    Since I’m not an 18- to 26-year-old in the workplace these days I don’t have direct knowledge of how younger workers behave. I do have a niece (age 24) who just got three jobs in the Denver market region, and found that employers there are inclined to hire people from the upper midwest because of their reliable work ethic.

    This leads me to wonder about the veracity of Mr. Owens’ claim. Frankly, he’s the only person I’ve heard from who’s made such a gripe about younger working South Dakotans. My guess is he’s been brainwashed by Fox News about millennials and he hasn’t stepped out of the rarefied air of the elitists he hangs out with to notice that South Dakota’s younger workers are committed, honorable and trustworthy in the workplace.

    Wasn’t Owens leading the elitists in Pierre to repeal the minimum wage increase for young people that was voted into law by the citizens of South Dakota a few elections ago?

    Maybe Mr. Owens should spend some time getting to know some of these young workers he’s bitching about, and spend a lot less time listening to Fox News and squawk radio. If there is an attitude that needs adjusting, it might be right between your ears, Dave. And maybe somebody needs to see if you’re slacking off.

  9. Jenny 2019-04-12 14:00

    I think low wages can bring on laziness in some people Like why work your butt off when you’re getting minimum-wage or a couple dollars above, and Then if you’re working two jobs you want to conserve your energy so you’re ready to go to your next low wage job.
    I think South Dakata leaders need to remember the workers that do work hard everyday in restaurants, customer service, retail, the workers that take care of your elderly loved ones instead of focusing on the few that don’t care to work.
    Large Business owners wouldn’t be where they are without its workers and many of the corporate giants have taken advantage of them.

  10. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-04-12 14:56

    Ah, LS1, that’s a good point! Is it perhaps time for a rethink of the regular workday or workweek?

    96, I did not hear Owens in this interview mention age. I don’t think his comments were directed specifically at young workers.

  11. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-04-12 14:58

    Whatever the problems, I do have to agree with Jenny that higher wages could make a big difference. Higher wages help folks with the challenges LS1 mentions access solutions—daycare, more reliable transportation, meds/therapy for what ails them.

  12. grudznick 2019-04-12 17:31

    If you don’t like your wages, get a different job that pays more.
    Who is stopping you?

  13. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-04-12 18:03

    That’s perhaps the problem, Grudz. The wages are too low. Workers don’t like those low wages and thus don’t stick around, leaving Chamber members puzzlingly puzzled about why they are short on workers. We get it, you get it, and the workers get it; why doesn’t the Chamber get it?

  14. mike from iowa 2019-04-12 18:10

    Grudzilla and his simplistic answers. Of course he’s in south Dakota so he can’t very well tell anyone if they don’t like their wages, get a better job.

  15. grudznick 2019-04-12 18:13

    Wages are driven by the supply and demands, Mr. H. The Chambers and Mr. Owen controls the demand. If the markets warranted paying more for entry jobs then the Chambers would pay more. If we paid burger flipper girls $25/hour what would we pay the plumbers and barbers? The markets set the barbers wages, says grudznick. That and their skill with barbering tools and how darn hard they work.

  16. John 2019-04-12 18:45

    Owen acts like an uniformed nut. It’s a pay gap. Full. Stop. When workers were well paid in western ND they doubled and quadrupled the sizes of towns there. Pay them. They will come.

  17. BMSA 2019-04-12 22:43

    Dear Grudznick – your comments seem ignorant…..

  18. RJ 2019-04-12 23:04

    The minimum wage in S.D. is $9.10. 9 frickin bucks. The problem isn’t lazy people or job availability. It’s wages. It’s condemnation of people who work full time plus and still need help to feed their families and pay their bills. It’s easy to scapegoat individuals as being lazy, rather then pay people a living wage. In my profession there is a $20 pay difference between S.D. and Caifornia. Yeah, yeah..cost of living, but when I crunch the numbers California still comes up on top.

  19. RJ 2019-04-12 23:10

    Grudz, II don’t who you are and I don’t care. I challenge you to go work a minimum wage job for 40 hours a week. You won’t get benefits. Oh. You would like to attend college or tech school? Let’s throw in student debt, rent, pricey healthcare, car insurance. Just work harder and show up on time. I’m sure that will do the trick.

  20. Certain Inflatable Recreational Devices 2019-04-12 23:26

    RJ, no one I know knows who grudznick is. It has plagued local discussion groups for years with inane, sometimes inflammatory, verbal defecation. It is a coward. If you engage it, you feed its belief that it matters. Please don’t notice it in the future.

  21. Roger Cornelius 2019-04-12 23:35

    Next week my niece and best friend will be leaving South Dakota for greater opportunities in New Mexico. She isn’t the first of my nieces and nephews that have left the state because of poor wages and having to work two jobs to barely make living expenses.
    Her leaving the state will also impact me since she has been one of my caretakers for a number of years, I have happily found a replacement for her that I’m comfortable with.
    There should be no debate about it, South Dakota wages and opportunities for young people are pathetic.
    I agree with RJ that working harder and showing up isn’t the solution.

  22. Debbo 2019-04-13 00:09

    Excellent, thoughtful, constructive comments. Except Grudzjer, of course.

    SD’s upper income level and most of the SDGOP will do anything, ANYTHING, but treat employees better through wages, benefits and scheduling. What small, nasty people.

  23. Certain Inflatable Rubber Devices 2019-04-13 00:42

    Cory, I fail to apprehend the reasoning by which you choose to address the grudthing with something approaching acknowledgment that it is human. Do you think you can nudge it toward decency?

    Every indication that its sociopathic posts result in annoyance or, worse, being taken seriously by those of us who trade attempted serious commentary makes it smile smugly for having done a little disservice in pursuit of trying to matter, if even pathetically.

    And you indulge it. Why?

  24. jerry 2019-04-13 01:51

    Subsidize housing, food, public transportation, child care, healthcare for starters for entry level employees, that way their minimum wage will help them make a living. The skill levels that Mr. Owen is describing is for what category of skills? My guess the workers he speaks of is for the low bidder on a project with the same players you see on every project that has government money involved in. If T.I.F.’s aren’t giveaways, then what are they? Weren’t they supposed to provide living wages for the employment base of the cities and the state that gave them?

  25. jerry 2019-04-13 01:56

    60 of our largest corporations paid zero for taxes and got huge refunds. They can afford to pay their people more and provide more worker protection.

    “As someone who just came face-to-face with his 2018 tax bill this very morning, and whose hands have stopped shaking just enough to accurately pound the keys on this keyboard, the information I’m about to convey is somewhere between “vexing” and “wildly infuriating,” and is only somewhat mitigated by the fact that the injustice is so very, very expected. So brace yourselves, I guess: The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy has found that 60 corporations, all of them Fortune 500 giants, paid absolutely no federal income taxes in 2018.”

    The skill levels we need to teach is how to steal, seems to work well for Wall Street..

  26. Robert McTaggart 2019-04-13 10:02

    I agree with you here jerry, that energy is a potential source of jobs, and we need to encourage that kind of development across the board with regard to energy. If we are not going to produce that kind of energy, we can supply the parts and expertise and other areas that add value to make those sources of energy better.

    Besides providing clean energy for others, you need industry to develop locally that can use the locally available wind energy (if not use that energy intermittently to reduce the need for energy storage), and you need to power a diverse economic portfolio.

    If you are only sending energy elsewhere, that is a problem.

  27. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-04-13 10:16

    Roger’s point is important: the loss of a worker to better-paying states is also the loss of a family member who provides numerous unpaid benefits to family and community that never show up in a statistical analysis. When an employer pays enough to get a young worker to hang around the office for 40 hours a week, the employer is also paying to keep that person around the community for the other 128 hours of the week, shopping, volunteering, paying rent/mortgage, and generally making the community a place others will want to come and live and work… which can only make the employer’s life better. Investing in workers is investing in community.

  28. Robert McTaggart 2019-04-13 10:21

    We should use the resources we have (mineral, energy, people, ideas, expertise, history, etc.) to power the diverse economic portfolio to provide jobs that attract people to the state.

  29. mike from iowa 2019-04-13 12:15

    How much more taxcut incentive does a state need to finally get korporate amerika to raise wages and pay a livable wage. Wingnuts have cut taxes for just about forever and still people can’t earn a decent, progressive living.

  30. Loren 2019-04-13 13:25

    I worked in the airline industry thru the ’80s and ’90s, the period where they were tearing themselves apart adjusting to deregulation. Wages/benefits disappeared for regular employees while mgt took their annual multi-million dollar bonuses. When we asked how that could be justified, we were told that, “In order to attract top tier management, you have to pay top $$$/benefits.” But their attitude toward labor was that they could always find someone to do the job for what they were offering, so quit if you don’t like it. But…but…but, we could get a brand new MBA grad to do their mgt job for one heck of a lot less, too. Why does the “more/better pay” only pertain to upper management? This has a lot to do with the ever increasing pay gap.

  31. leslie 2019-04-13 22:02

    Doc, SD Indians lost their reservation homes to produce significant hydropower. We are doing ok in the energy production realm with added solar and wind generation. Not producing much CO2 either. Mining has generally polluted the environment for precious metals and nuke fuel. Bankruptcy is always the industry default instead of cleanup. We do have bentonite, and granite for high end home kitchen and bathrooms I suppose. Other than the rally/generic summer tourism, we’ve got USAF bases and thats about it. We could assist our sovereign neighbors to develope cultural and bison or even hemp economies. We could turn the main stem lakes into better recreation attractions and force the military to do all the infrastructure. Or a trapping and sky tenderlion harvesting economy and have more cabellas and scheel stores to compete against Kristi’s cammo buddies. Or maybe an airline from pierre to castlewood. Or grdz could market our cowboy/Indian lobbyist’s photographs.

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