Problem: Young employees lack non-technical "employability" skills

What’s going on with the young people in today’s workforce? I accept the fact that we don’t have many kids graduating from high school with the technical skills we need in our company. In fact, I understand this so well that I have established specific training programs to cover the specific skills we need. The problem I am running into is not about training for these positions. The real problem is having to teach these young people the basic fundamentals of being employable. I am talking about some basic skills around communication, reading, basic math and writing, along with things like dependability, responsibility and a positive attitude about work. So many times I am able to teach a person about production and buying, but when the other skills are missing, I end up firing them because it just doesn’t work. Am I the only one dealing with these problems and what can we do about it? Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

You are by no means the only owner or manager feeling the frustration about the lack of employable young people. According to research conducted by the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, “more than half our young people leave school without the knowledge or foundation required to find and hold a good job.” The research further indicated that employers have no quarrel with the skills performance of today’s graduates, but they do have serious reservations when it comes to the non-technical abilities. Another name for these “non-technical abilities” is employability skills. Simply stated, employability skills are the attributes of employees, other than technical competence, that make them an asset to the employer. As detailed later in the report, these employability skills include basic reading, simple arithmetic, problem solving, decision making, dependability, a positive attitude, cooperativeness and other effective skills and traits.

This same research indicated that 87% of persons losing their jobs or failing to be promoted were found to have "improper work habits and attitudes rather than insufficient job skills or knowledge."

So the problem is that even though employers expect to train new employees in company-specific procedures and job-specific technical skills and to acquaint them with the behavioral norms for the workplace, in many cases it is still not enough to keep them successful in the position.

The school systems need to be doing a much better job of developing these basic employability skills so that students are equipped to handle the complexities of their jobs through their lives. Students need to be taught such things as honesty, punctuality, regular attendance, productivity and conscientiousness.

So what can we as business owners and managers do to help develop more employable students when the educational system is not helping? I personally believe that we need to become more involved with the school administration, at least in our own school districts.

Here is an example. School officials in the Kent School District in California have added "employability" to high school student report cards to measure how adept they are at landing jobs. Teachers rate students on work habits and attitudes, cooperation, commitment to quality, quantity of work, attendance and punctuality. District officials hope the grades, in addition to traditional academic grades, will improve skills crucial for snaring part time jobs and building careers. The idea stems in part from a 1997 joint survey by the Kent Chamber of Commerce and the school district on how well schools have prepared students for the workplace. The bottom line: not well.

"It was kind of a rude awakening," said Sandy Schwartz, director of technical and applied programs for the district. Area employers complained about the sloppy appearance and poor attitudes of some students seeking jobs. As a result, the district’s Academic Standards Commission, which included members of the business community, charged the district with developing the employability grades. Students rate themselves first. The student’s teachers and the student then discuss the grade together, and the teacher makes the final judgment. Students who score high – grades range from A to F – earn "hire-me-first" cards, which they present to area employers during job interviews. Area employers have said they will give higher priority to card-bearers, although they won’t rule out students who don’t have cards.

Personally I think this type of a program is a great idea and something that could be implemented in school districts throughout the country. It appears to be quite obvious that in order for business owners to have a labor pool worth hiring from, we are going to have to get more involved. As business owners and managers, I believe we have a responsibility to help get students ready for the "real world."

Debra Thompson is President of TG & Associates, a consulting firm specializing in Human Resources for the Graphics Industry. Contact Debra toll free at 877-842-7762 or Visit to sign up for The Communicator, a free monthly email newsletter.
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