Are Graduates Ready To Work?

By John Bendt

What does the future hold for today's youth? Are they learning the skills they need to succeed? Are They Really Ready to Work?, a report released by The Conference Board (a business membership and research organization), shows there is an alarming trend in the United States for many of today's entry level workers, even those with a four-year degree, to lack critical workplace skills needed to succeed on the job.

The Conference Board, along with The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, Corporate Voices for Working Families, and the Society for Human Resource Management, conducted a survey in 2007 of more than 400 employers across the United States to identify skill sets that new workplace entrants will need to succeed. A key finding of the survey is that the "Three Rs" alone are not sufficient to succeed on the job, and applied or soft skills are essential for success. Among the most important soft skills needed by entrants into today's workforce are:

  • Professionalism / Work Ethic
  • Communications (Written & Oral)
  • Teamwork / Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking / Problem Solving

Employers' assessment of new workforce entrants' readiness on these important skills is alarming. A report card shows serious skill deficiencies for high school and two-year college/technical school graduates, and low levels of skill excellence for four-year college graduates. For example, the majority of employers rated high school graduate entrants deficient in all of the most important soft skills. A significant percent rated two-year college or technical school graduates deficient in communication and problem solving skills. And although four-year college graduates were rated mostly adequate, with the exception of written communication skills, only 25 percent of the employers rated them excellent on three of the five most important soft skills. The full report is available online at http://www.conference-board.org/.

Part of this problem can be attributed to the fact that most high school students put little effort into exploring what they want to do upon graduation, have little understanding or experience with the requirements of the work world, and have no action plan in place to prepare for their future, other than some plan to go to college. It's paradoxical that college bound students and their parents put lots of energy into selecting and gaining admission into college, but minimal thought and effort into selecting an occupation and learning the skills it will take to compete successfully in today's competitive global world. As a result many enter college with little direction, often require extra time to graduate, and most importantly, fail to hone critical workplace skills.

Pointing Students in the Right Direction

What can teachers, counselors and parents do to help students better prepare for their future in the workforce? Following are three actions that can make a difference:

  1. Make the case to students that preparing for their future work life should be a high priority, because success in their work life depends on the ability to provide skills an employer will value. Students experience competition in sports, class work, and other extra curricular activities. Most, however, don't fully grasp the role competition will play in their work life, and that their ability to compete is the single most important factor in determining the success they will experience. Help students understand that the way to successfully compete in the workplace is to create skill advantages and to start preparing while in high school.
  2. Bring the work world to students through exploration of occupations. Encourage students to use career center tools to identify and explore occupational interests and learn which hard and soft skills are needed to achieve success in the occupations. Most importantly teach them how to find and interview someone working in the occupation so they gain a realistic understanding of the work and requirements for success. Arming students with an agenda, such as Information Interviews, can alleviate anxiety caused by the uncertainty of what questions to ask. Student interactions with the professionals they interview can often lead to valuable mentor relationships.
  3. Show students how they can learn and practice important workplace skills in their extra curricular activities and part time jobs. Opportunities to practice skillslike leadership, teamwork and communication abound if one participates in sports, school clubs and volunteer activities. Verbal skills can be sharpened by joining the debate or forensics teams, or writing skills can be improved by working on the school newspaper, or yearbook. Part-time jobs provide the opportunity to practice professionalism by demonstrating responsibility, dependability, initiative, ability to work under pressure and self confidence. Interpersonal skills can also be practiced in dealing with co-workers. Encourage students to keep a journal of how they practiced important workplace soft skills in their extra curricular activities and part time jobs. This documentation of skill use will assist the student in mastering the skill, and will be a very valuable record when the time comes to demonstrate one's skills when competing for a job.

The Road To Success

Despite the alarming news from the Conference Board report, there is hope. Counselors, educators and parents can make a major difference by encouraging students to be proactive in preparing for their future. With effective guidance students will gain a better understanding of the big picture and will enter the workforce armed with the soft skills necessary to compete.

2008 John G. Bendt

John G. Bendt is founder and owner of Career MentorPress, LLC and author of A Roadmap to Career Success---25 Tips for College Bound Students. Combining 40 years of professional experience with his passion for mentoring young people, Bendt has established himself as an expert on advising students about career planning. He can be reached through his web site at http://www.roadmaptocareersuccess.com/ .

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