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Skills Of Recent U.S. High School Graduates Leave Employers Cold

April 13, 2007
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Workforce advocates came to Washington
in late March to get the attention of Congress on what they call an urgent problem with the U.S. labor market: High school graduates are deficient and those with a college education only adequate in key skills employers are demanding to cope with global economic competition.

In a March 28 Capitol Hill briefing, the groups presented findings from their poll of about 400 companies showing that new entrants to the U.S. workforce generally disappoint those who would like to give them their first job. High school-educated workers lack the level of ability employers seek in everything from writing and work ethic to oral communication. Twenty-three percent to 27 percent of respondents said college graduates were weak in writing and leadership.

The report, “Are They Really Ready to Work?” was sponsored by the Conference Board, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, Corporate Voices for Working Families and the Society for Human Resource Management.

The lack of talent among high school graduates is a serious problem because they’re often in positions—especially in the retail industry—where they are the public face of a company.

“These are the people who, if nothing else, are the interface with your customers,” says Linda Barrington, research director at the Conference Board. “We can’t write that segment of the workforce off.”

Although college graduates fared better than their high school counterparts, they weren’t given rave reviews. Less than 30 percent of employers rated them as “excellent” in skills that those companies say will become more important over the next five years—critical thinking, teamwork, creativity and diversity. About 46 percent deemed them exceptional in applied information technology.

This quality of talent may not be enough to help a company thrive in the midst of global competitive threats. To accomplish that, young people must do more than gain basic skills like writing and math. Companies are seeking sophistication in applying knowledge, workers who can think critically, Barrington says.

“That’s the part [they] can’t program to get kicked out of a software package,” she says.

Developing that background requires intervening early in a child’s life. At the Capitol Hill event, three companies were cited for their work with young people.

Accounting and consulting firm KPMG established an initiative 15 years ago that enables its employees to be involved in community programs like Junior Achievement. The company allows workers four hours a month of paid time off to volunteer for teaching and other activities.

The H.E. Butt Grocery Co. sponsors a range of programs—from job shadowing and internships to formal training programs—designed to introduce high school students to opportunities in the supermarket chain.

CVS has recently launched Pathways to Pharmacy, which exposes children from the inner city and rural areas to science and math. It also trains them in job skills and encourages them to consider a pharmacy career.

Beyond individual company efforts, the corporate community must work with schools and governments to improve workforce readiness, according to experts.

"We need to think more broadly about the opportunities youth need to develop their skills,” says Elyse Rosenblum, senior consultant at Corporate Voices for Working Families. “There needs to be a more coordinated approach.”

Mark Schoeff Jr.

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