Most Young People Entering the U.S. Workforce Lack Critical Skills Essential for Success

As the baby boom generation slowly exits the U.S. workplace, a new survey of leaders from a consortium of business research organizations finds the incoming generation sorely lacking in much needed workplace skills—both basic academic and more advanced “applied” skills, according to a report released today.

The report is based on an detailed survey of 431 human resource officials that was conducted in April and May 2006 by The Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and the Society for Human Resource Management.   Its objective was to examine employers’ views on the readiness of new entrants to the U.S. workforce—recently hired graduates from high schools, two-year colleges or technical schools, and four-year colleges.

“The future workforce is here, and it is ill-prepared,” concludes the report.

The findings reflect employers’ growing frustrations over the preparedness of new entrants to the workforce.  Employers expect young people to arrive with a core set of basic knowledge and the ability to apply their skills in the workplace – and the reality is not matching the expectation.

“It is clear from the report that greater communication and collaboration between the business sector and educators is critical to ensure that young people are prepared to enter the workplace of the 21st century,” says Richard Cavanagh, President and CEO of The Conference Board. “Less than intense preparation in critical skills can lead to unsuccessful futures for America’s youth, as well as a less competitive U.S. workforce. This ultimately makes the U.S. economy more vulnerable in the global marketplace.”

Business leaders report that while the three “R’s” are still fundamental to every employee’s ability to do the job, applied skills such as teamwork, critical thinking, and communication are essential for success at work. In fact, at all educational levels, these applied skills trump basic knowledge skills such as reading and mathematics in importance in the view of employers. In order to succeed in the workplace of the 21st Century, high school and college graduates need to master basic academic skills as well as a complement of applied skills. The survey also found though that too many new entrants to the workforce are not adequately prepared in these important skills. 

Nearly three-quarters of survey participants (70 percent) cite deficiencies among incoming high school graduates in “applied” skills, such as professionalism and work ethic, defined as “demonstrating personal accountability, effective work habits, e.g. punctuality, working productively with others, time and workload management.”

More than 40 percent of surveyed employers say incoming high school graduates hired are deficiently prepared for the entry-level jobs they fill. The report finds that recent high school graduates lack the basic skills in reading comprehension, writing and math, which many respondents say were needed for successful job performance.

Furthermore, when asked how their hiring practices will change:
? 28 percent of employers project that their companies will reduce hiring of new entrants with only a high school diploma over the next five years. 
? 49.5 percent said the percentages of two-year college graduates they hire would increase.
? almost 60 percent said their hires of four-year college graduates would increase.
? 42 percent said their hires of post-graduates would increase over the next five years.

"This study should serve as an alert to educators, policy makers and those concerned with U.S. economic competitiveness that we may be facing a skills shortage," said Susan R. Meisinger, President and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management.  “In a knowledge based economy a talented workforce with communication and critical thinking skills is necessary for organizations and the U.S. to be successful."

The findings show an especially big gap in writing skills. Nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of incoming high school graduates are viewed as deficient in basic English writing skills, including grammar and spelling. And, when asked about readiness with regard to applied skills related to the workplace, the greatest deficiency was reported in written communications (memos, letters, complex technical reports), and in professionalism and work ethic. Eighty-one percent of survey participants say their high school graduate hires were deficient in written communications.

Poor writing skills also continued to be a problem among both two-year and four-year college graduates. Nearly half of all survey participants (47 percent) report that two-year college graduates are deficient in this skill.

“The basics plus an array of applied and social skills – from critical thinking to collaboration to communications – defines workforce readiness in the 21st century,” says Ken Kay, President of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. 

For example, over half (58 percent) of responding employers say critical thinking and problem solving skills are “very important” for incoming high school graduates’ successful job performance, yet nearly three-quarters of respondents (70 percent) rated recently hired high school graduates as deficient in critical thinking.

“Clearly, business has a stake in the problem and can play a role in helping to solve the problem,” says Donna Klein, President and CEO, Corporate Voices for Working Families. “Many business leaders across the country are already actively engaged in efforts to address the skills gap through a variety of initiatives including efforts to improve academic outcomes through partnerships with schools, partnering with schools or community based organizations that run mentoring programs, providing internships, job shadowing programs and summer job opportunities. Through these and other initiatives, business can help ensure that the workforce of the future has the full range of skills needed to be successful as they enter the workplace of the 21st century.”    

Looking toward the future, nearly three-fourths of the survey participants ranked “creativity/innovation” as among the top five applied skills projected to increase in importance for future graduates.

In addition, knowledge of foreign languages, cultures, and global markets will become increasingly important for future graduates entering the U.S. workforce. When asked to project the changing importance of several knowledge and skill needs over the next five years, 63 percent of survey participants cited foreign languages as increasing in importance more than any other basic knowledge area or skill. And, in separate questions about emerging content areas, half of the respondents noted the use of “non-English languages as a tool for understanding other nations, markets, and cultures,” while 53 percent selected “understanding of global markets and the economic and cultural impacts of globalization.” 

Making appropriate choices concerning health and wellness is the number one emerging topic considered most critical for future graduates entering the workforce. More than three-quarters of survey participants (76 percent) say that “making appropriate choices concerning health and wellness, such as nutrition, exercise, stress reduction, work-life effectiveness” is an emerging content area that will be most critical for future graduates.

Interestingly, workforce readiness of high school graduates was reported as adequate by a majority of survey participants in three areas considered critical for current and future workplace needs: information technology, team work, diversity.

“The adequacy of preparation in these areas is encouraging, as all three – diversity, teamwork and technology – are areas where business leaders, educators and communities have focused unified energy and resources in recent years,” says Klein. “These results suggest that when a particular skill is viewed uniformly as critical and is targeted, success and progress is possible.”

In addition, incoming two-year and four-year college graduates are much better prepared for the entry-level jobs they seek to fill, but relatively small percentages meet standards of excellence. Overall, as might be expected, survey participants considered graduates of both two-year and four-year colleges as much better prepared for their entry-level jobs, with relatively small percentages of two-year and four-year college graduates (11 percent and 9 percent respectively) considered deficiently prepared. While the majority of employers said that both two- and four-year college graduates are adequately prepared, relatively few rated two-and four-year college graduates as excellently prepared (10 percent and 24 percent) respectively.

“One message of this study to educators, policy makers and those concerned with U.S. economic competitiveness is that new entrants to the U.S. workforce are not demonstrating levels of excellence necessary to compete successfully in the face of rising global labor market challenges,” emphasizes Meisinger. “The importance of learning to communicate in writing and orally is paramount. Communication is a critical skill in the workplace, and one that many new entrants lack.”

Linda Barrington, Research Director at The Conference Board and one of the report’s authors, concludes: “This report card makes it clear that as competitive pressures from globalization continue to mount, America’s youth must be more intensely prepared for employment if reality is going to match expectations.”