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By PATTY DeDOMINIC

The signs are unmistakable. The economy is booming. Jobs are being created at a steady clip. The American economy is on the move. Or is it?

There are ominous signs that American businesses will face a severe challenge in the months and years to come finding and retaining a qualified and educated work force.

The warning signs are there: a strong economy demanding highly skilled workers; an inadequate population to replace aging baby boomers on the verge of retirement; a national trend toward tightening immigration; an increasingly competitive global economy. As a result of these factors, companies nationwide are scrambling to find tomorrow's workers today.

It's a problem I experience almost every day. At my Los Angeles job placement agency, we're simply not seeing the same quality of applicants that we used to see. As a result, we've had to nearly quadruple our efforts in locating employees for our clients, which include major hospitals, insurance companies, banks, non-profits and public agencies throughout California.

In one case, an opening for the CFO position at a major non-profit group with a salary in the high five figures has gone begging for more than three weeks. In the past, we would have filled the position in days, even hours. Administrative assistant positions which paid perhaps $30,000 a year just several years ago now fetch annual salaries of as much as $40,000 or even $50,000.

And it's not just white collar jobs that are going unfilled. A number of our high-profile retail clients have seen key shipments delayed because they cannot find enough skilled people to staff their packaging and shipping departments. Local contractors, for their part, have been complaining about a lack of skilled craftspeople a troubling prospect considering the region's recent real estate recovery.

During the recent wave of corporate downsizings, American companies dismissed tens of thousands of people. But now, these companies can't find enough workers to fill their ranks. Positions in such categories as computer programming, high-tech and even the service industry go unfilled. Perhaps that's one of the reasons we all seem to be working harder.

Meanwhile, our local school systems appear unable to adequately train the nation's future workers. Time and time again, employers lament that they cannot find prospective employees with writing and communication skills necessary to compete in the marketplace.

It's a frightening thought that one of the world's most robust economies has jobs that go unfilled. Responding to the problems will require concentrated efforts on the part of employers to work to ensure that tomorrow's workforce has the support and commitment of community and political leaders. And we must make a new commitment to quality education. American schools need to return to the basics of English, math and science. The rest of the world is demanding this. So should we.

Patty DeDominic is president of PDQ Personnel Services Inc.

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