"Help Wanted" is a rarity given the country's high unemployment and economic malaise. But that was the message several women CEOs delivered to a group of female Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill Monday.
"It's really disappointing for companies like mine, when every single headline is about joblessness, to know that there are actually hundreds of thousands of jobs that are going without being filled," said Lisa Hook, CEO of Neustar Inc., a Sterling, Va.-based telecommunications company.
"Get me qualified people, and we're taking qualified applications in the back of the room," she added, drawing a round of laughter from the congresswomen and audience. "Because we never miss an opportunity."
The panel, hosted by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., came to tell lawmakers what they need to create jobs. But several of the executives ended up talking about the jobs, and even potential jobs, that remain unfilled at their companies.
"It's incredibly challenging to get good technical people," said Alison Brown, CEO of Navsys Corp., a Colorado Springs, Colo.-based GPS technology company. "There's an enormous amount of demand, there's competition, quite frankly between industries and labs and federal institutes."
The problem, the business leaders said, boils down to the dearth of qualified people with expertise in science, technology, engineering and math, collectively known as STEM. Hook, the telecommunications executive, ticked off what she called troubling statistics: By 2018, there will be 1.4 million computing job openings in the United States, but given graduation rates, only 29 percent of those jobs will be filled by U.S. graduates; 40 states produce fewer computing graduates than needed to fill projected openings in their states; and the number of girls studying computing has declined 13 percent in the past 10 years.
The statistics come from the National Center for Women & Information Technology, which culled the numbers from various government departments.
"We need a lot of federal assistance in encouraging children to go into STEM, we need to make it accessible and available starting in the ninth grade," Hook said.
Fielding a question from Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., who asked the women how 99 weeks of unemployment insurance have affected their businesses, Brown said it hadn't.
"Our issue is STEM. I mean our folks are the engineers, they're not unemployed," Navsys CEO Brown said.
"You can't find enough of them," Ellmers said.
"I can't find enough of them."
On the presidential trail, Republican candidates have also picked up on the STEM issue. During the CNN debate in November, Newt Gingrich said foreign students graduating with STEM degrees should automatically receive work visas.
"I think that we ought to have an H-1 visa that goes with every graduate degree in math, science and engineering so that people stay here," Gingrich said.
At the same debate, Romney took it to the next immigration level, saying, "I'd staple a green card to the diploma of anybody who's got a degree of math, science, a master's degree, Ph.D."
President Obama has also long touted the importance of STEM. At a Facebook town hall in April, he said STEM education is critical to U.S. competitiveness. More recently in a September interview with a local Florida station, he said the United States is " revamping our education system, making sure we've got world class infrastructure, investing in basic science, research and technology."
Advice for the Overqualified: Explain Yourself Up Front
Not all the CEOs at Monday's panel need STEM graduates for their companies. Echoing some of her colleagues, Janet Trautwein, head of the National Association of Health Underwriters, said her professional association has many more applicants that it has jobs to offer. And she had some bad news for overqualified workers.
"I do have a lot of people applying for positions that are really entry-level positions with way too much experience, and frankly I can't hire [them] for those positions because I can't pay them what they need, and also they won't like it," she said. "They wouldn't be satisfied with that."
After the panel, Trautwein said she had hired highly experienced people for low-level positions, only to have them quit two months later. Her advice to people applying to jobs for which they are overqualified: Explain yourself up front, either in the cover letter, or at the beginning of the interview, and make a case for why you are willing to take a position far beneath your skill level.
Advice for Young Job Seekers: R U writing properly?
Aside from getting a STEM degree, young and future job seekers need to brush up on their professionalism and writing skills to stand out as an applicant.
"There's a lot of work out there that you don't need to have a college degree for," said Sandra Parrillo, CEO of Rhode Island-based Providence Mutual Fire Insurance. You need to "have basic mathematics skills, basic English language … basic communication skills, in order to present yourself and work in a professional environment."
Trautwein said her company hires college graduates and interns every year, and said one critical skill that is lacking among young applicants is the ability to write well.
"They can't express themselves in writing and everything looks like a text message," the National Association of Underwriters executive said.
"I just want to let anyone listening to this know that we do look very closely at that," she added, "as well as the ability to express yourself orally because you have to speak reasonably well."
Rep. Rodgers said, "That's a big deal for the members of Congress, too. We're always looking for the good writers."
All They Want for Christmas Is Congressional Action
A big deal for the business leaders is getting Congress to offer some sense of stability. Besides more STEM graduates, creating jobs for experienced unemployed Americans, and getting young workers who will keep text message grammar out of the workplace, the CEOs said they want concrete answers from Congress.
"Having no plan in place to get out of the debt crisis is hurting business far more, in my opinion, than any of the flaws opponents have pointed out with each other's plans for recovery," Navsys CEO Brown said.
Neustar CEO Hook said, "The outcome of the budget really is less important to us than there is an outcome. The outcome of the debt-ceiling debate is less important to us than there is an outcome," adding that the constant uncertainty affects companies' share prices and business, i.e. job creation, plans.
"So like Dr. Brown," Hook said, "if I had one holiday wish, it'd be certainty."