A closer look at the labor market’s ‘new normal’

June 6, 2012, 3:34 PM UTC

FORTUNE — With only 69,000 jobs created in May — roughly half the bare minimum needed to keep pace with U.S. population growth — and the official unemployment rate stuck at 8.2%, you wouldn’t think employers would be complaining about labor shortages. Yet hundreds of thousands of jobs are going begging, either because applicants lack the necessary skills or, more strangely, because no one has applied at all.

At the same time, often because they can’t find the right people to hire, many companies have gotten used to doing more with shrunken headcounts. About 56% of employers say that running short-staffed has little effect on key constituents like customers or investors, a big jump from the 36% that believed that last year, according to a new study by global recruiting and staffing giant Manpower Group, based on a poll of 1,300 U.S. companies.

What that implies, says Jeff Joerres, Manpower’s CEO, is that “today’s high rates of joblessness are at serious risk of becoming permanent. The ‘new normal’ is not normal at all.”

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By now everyone’s aware that certain fields, like high tech and health care, are hiring like mad. The unemployment rate in IT, according to Dice.com’s June job report, is a measly 3.5%, and 73% of tech managers say they want to add staff in the next six months.

Meanwhile, hiring managers in a wide range of other fields report chronic shortages of skilled candidates. The mining industry, for instance, is struggling to keep up with raw-materials demand from developing countries, and is desperate for engineers and geologists to replace legions of the soon-to-retire, according to research firm IbisWorld.  And a new survey by the Society for Human Resource Management says about half of all U.S. finance firms can’t find enough sales reps or accountants.

But the biggest, and apparently most intractable, skills gaps are in manufacturing, which added 13,000 jobs in May — and would no doubt have created far more if enough welders, electricians, carpenters, robotics technicians, and other skilled tradespeople were available. “The shortage of skills in ‘blue collar’ fields is severe, and it’s getting worse,” Joerres notes. “Employers are telling us that no one is even applying for these jobs.

“And it’s not only in the U.S. They have the same problem in China, and for the same reason,” he adds. In the fast-expanding Chinese middle class, “all the parents are pushing their kids to go to Beijing U. instead of learning a trade that is viewed as lower in prestige.”

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What would it take to get the total U.S. unemployment rate down? “If we had economic growth of 4.5% or 5%, as we have had in normal recoveries in the past, the whole picture would look different,” says Joerres. “Now, employers aren’t hiring in anticipation of demand [for their products and services], as they used to do. This downturn has hung on so long, they’re waiting until demand is actually there.”

Understandable, perhaps, but it creates a vicious circle: Demand depends in large part on people having jobs. The current stalemate — people aren’t spending because they’re unemployed or worried about becoming so, and many companies won’t hire until people start spending more — threatens to “turn normal cyclical unemployment into structural unemployment,” says Joerres. “The persistence of this downturn has the look of permanently adjusting the status quo for employers and employees alike.”

Grim as that prospect is, there may be a silver lining for people who are currently working. The Manpower study found that a growing number of companies are investing more in training and developing the employees they already have, Joerres says. “A lot of training got cut out in recent years, but now it’s coming back. Employers are focusing a lot more on teaching people the skills to move up” — or to move sideways into good jobs for which no outsiders have applied.