That shift, across multiple industries, has caught the eye of David Altig, research director at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. Workers aren't just being asked to increase their output, Altig says. They're being asked to broaden it, too.
A company might have had three back-office jobs before the recession, Altig said. Only one of those jobs might have required computer skills. Now, he said, "one person is doing all three of those jobs — and every job you fill has to have computer skills."
The trend is magnifying the obstacles facing the unemployed. Economists have long worried that millions of people who have lost jobs in depressed areas like construction don't qualify for work in growing sectors like health care. But it turns out that some of the jobless no longer even qualify for their old positions.
Frustrated in their efforts to find qualified applicants among the jobless, employers are turning to those who are already employed.
"They're hiring a known quantity that already has this specific experience on their resume," said Cathy Farley, a managing director at Accenture. "It is slowing some of the re-hiring from the ranks of the unemployed."
Only 49% of people laid off from 2007 through 2009 were re-employed by January 2010, according to a Labor Department survey. It's the lowest such proportion since the survey began in 1984.
And more than 40% of the nearly 15 million unemployed Americans have been out of work for six months or longer. That's near the record high set during the recession.
Some of the unfortunate ones are information technology workers. One reason is that tech companies are increasingly combining business analyst and systems analyst positions.
Suppose a company wants a new software application. A business analyst would seek the least expensive approach and then propose the technical requirements. Separately, a systems analyst would build the technology.
But now, employers want "those two skill sets in one human being," said Harry Griendling, chief executive of DoubleStar Inc., a staffing firm outside Philadelphia.
The trend reflects the push that companies made during the recession to control costs, squeeze more output from their staffs and become more productive. Productivity measures output per hour worked. Economy-wide, it soared 3.5% last year. It was the best performance in six years.
And it means workers are bearing heavier burdens. In manufacturing, employees increasingly must be able to run the computerized machinery that dominates most assembly lines. They also have to carry out additional tasks, such as inspecting finished products, notes Mark Tomlinson, executive director of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers.
Manufacturers advertised nearly 200,000 jobs at the end of August, a jump of about 40% from a year ago, according to government data. Yet hiring by manufacturers has risen less than 6% over that time — evidence that they are having a hard time finding qualified workers.
"There are jobs available, but the worker just has to have more skills than before," Tomlinson said.
Bob Brown, 49, has felt the demand for broader skills firsthand. After working for 30 years in manufacturing, including 20 as a plant supervisor, Brown was laid off in July 2009.
He spent a year looking for a new job. His efforts yielded only three calls from employers in the first four months.
But once things began to pick up, Brown noticed something else: The plant manager jobs he used to have, and that he was aiming for again, all required certifications in productivity-boosting management practices.
So Brown paid for courses at a community college to learn a management strategy known as "six sigma." It's an approach to cutting waste and raising efficiency popularized by General Electric. The courses allowed him to obtain his certification. In August, he was hired by an electrical product assembly plant near Williamsport, Penn.
"That's the way the industry's going," Brown said. "Everybody wanted certifications."
Human resource specialists say employers who increasingly need multi-skilled employees aren't willing to settle for less. They'd rather wait and hold jobs vacant.
HR specialists even have a nickname for the highly sought but elusive job candidate whose skills and experiences precisely match an employer's needs: the "purple squirrel."
Joe Yesulaitis, chief executive of Aavalar Consulting, an IT staffing firm, is familiar with the term. "There are lots of requests for purple squirrels nowadays," he said.
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