The Workforce Readiness Crisis

from Technology & Learning

We're not turning out employable graduates nor maintaining our position as a global competitor. Why?

Back when the Soviet Union shot Sputnik into orbit, a panicked United States responded by improving math and science instruction in the nation's schools. Now that the United States is facing an increasingly competitive world market driven by digital globalization, how is our education system stepping up to the demand for graduates skilled enough to keep our country on the cutting edge? According to a survey of more than 400 Fortune 500 companies, we're not doing enough.

Released in September, "The Workforce Readiness Report Card" from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, The Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, and the Society for Human Resource Management found the nation's new workforce entrants "woefully ill-prepared for the demands of today's—and tomorrow's—workplace." Donna Klein, president, CEO, and founder of Corporate Voices for Working Families, says the study's results were "amazing and sobering."

Klein, a former executive with the Marriott Corp. and current liaison between numerous American businesses, has seen firsthand the bumpy transition of today's new hires from school to the work world. "Education has been an area of interest for business for a long time because employers recognize that education is the pipeline into the workforce," she says. "We conducted 'The Workforce Readiness' survey essentially to verify our assumptions about what to expect from the upcoming workforce." With the Baby Boomers retiring in droves throughout the coming decade, Klein and others predicted a workforce smaller in number and without the necessary skills needed to thrive in the new technology-based economy.

But not even those commissioning the survey were prepared for the dramatic results the study uncovered.

Critical Skills for Today and Tomorrow

Core findings of the broad report identify what businesses' rate as the most important "must have" skills for new workplace entrants and also the specific areas in which new hires are both most deficient and best prepared. Skills employers cite as "very important" now and predict will be of increasing importance in the digital workplace reflect the shift in the past 25 years from a traditional economy to a knowledge-based economy. Among the skills identified as critical to success in the 21st century workforce are:

  1. a combination of basic knowledge and applied skills, with applied skills trumping basics as in the top five most important for any level of education;
  2. professionalism/work ethic, teamwork/collaboration, and oral communications, which are rated the three most important applied skills;
  3. knowledge of foreign languages, an area that will increase in importance in the next five years, more than any other basic skill;
  4. and creativity/innovation, which is projected to increase in importance for future workforce entrants.

Perhaps not surprising is the finding that employers place much greater value on the applied skills of leadership, critical thinking, and problem-solving than on more traditional basic skills such as reading comprehension or mathematics (for a full breakdown of what is meant by basic knowledge and applied skills, see the table below). Study sponsors are quick to emphasize that this does not suggest employers do not care about the basic skill level of new employees but rather that they seek a balance of the basic and applied skills. As the study states: "While the 'three Rs' are still fundamental to any new workforce entrant's ability to do the job, employers emphasize that applied skills are 'very important' to success at work."

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Measuring Up

Although respondents reported that some new workforce entrants have an excellent balance of the basic knowledge and applied skills they're looking for, and also acknowledge that information technology application makes a strong standing in two of the three education level categories, there remain significant deficiencies among entrants at every educational level, especially in the areas of written and oral communications and general workplace professionalism, including leadership abilities. Beyond that, it's troubling that the majority of college graduates remain just "adequate" rather than "excellent" in key skill areas (see the table at left for how new hires fared).

Also particularly disturbing is the study's findings on the current lack of preparedness of the nation's high school graduates. In addition to the deficiencies in communication and professionalism shared by those with varying degrees of college education, well over half of new workforce entrants with only a high school diploma are deficiently prepared in all ten of the skills that employers rate critical. These include both basic skills such as writing, mathematics, and reading, as well as applied skills such as critical thinking, work ethic, diversity, and teamwork.

The Crisis

The "Workforce Readiness Report Card" sounds a serious alarm for the current state of education in the United States. The implications touch numerous areas in today's education policy, procedures, and theory and presage serious "ripple effects" for the country's domestic and international standing.

On the domestic front, the study points to the degree to which federal education policy in the form of NCLB, with its focus on basic skill reform, appears to be at almost complete odds with the applied knowledge that employers say they value most in workers. Klein sees this disconnect as an inescapable by-product of the sweeping transformations of the past couple of decades. "We have changed to a knowledge economy, culturally, socially, and economically, but have not yet figured out how to reinvent ourselves to keep up with this, including in the area of education."

On the current lack of graduates' ability to apply skills, Klein believes this may in part be a result of an increasingly narrow and segmented curriculum, due largely to the cutbacks in after-school programs we've seen in the past 25 years. "After-school programs that provide opportunities for young people to remain in school to get experience in art, music, drama, computers, community leadership, and athletics help kids develop applied skills," Klein says. "There is lots of research showing this holistic approach to youth development is more beneficial in the long run than segmented development."

Cisco Systems Global Lead for Education Charles Fadel also believes that American students' lack of ability to apply learned skills in the workplace environment may be the result of an imbalance in our instructional approach. "We Americans tend to be purists," Fadel says. "We go from one extreme to the other, conducting academic debates over the merits of such things as whole language vs. phonics, or succumb to fads like 'new math,' instead of recognizing that we need to offer practical means to learn."

Fadel, who earned physics and business degrees, says the American education system has been losing its edge in both the creativity and deeper thinking areas over the past 20 or 30 years. "In the past, we saw NASA engineers thinking daringly and creatively, and they also had the analytical background to go with it," Fadel says. "American education has now somehow lost its ability to impart analytical skills to the masses."

Communication Breakdown

Klein and others also lament the "C in written communication" grade assigned by today's employers even to four-year college grads. "It's just so hard today to find entry-level people who can communicate effectively," she says. "Businesses are currently picking up the slack in remedial instruction, but the cost of training is prohibitive."

And for the many graduates who find themselves in working situations where companies are not willing to invest in training, a lack of communication skills can be a barrier to upward mobility.

John Curson, a veteran high-tech executive and CFO and cofounder of the San Francisco Bay Area's Complete Genomics DNA Sequencing company, finds the college graduates he's hired to fill middle management positions flatly "unpromotable" as a whole. "They may have good ideas, but they are simply unable to express them, either in writing or orally," Curson says. "If you want to be reminded about how important it is to communicate well, look at Steve Jobs." And while the company's highly skilled top technology workers, success-track PhDs and MBAs, may be able to communicate ideas clearly, they too often exhibit a limited ability to interact successfully with others, especially in the area of conflict resolution. Curson suspects the digital natives' natural dependence on e-mail may be partly to blame. "E-mail has introduced incredible efficiencies, but there is no substitution for old fashioned, face-to-face dialogue when it comes to straightening out misunderstandings," he says.

Workplace Professionalism

Such complaints from employers about employee behaviors dovetail with larger survey findings pinpointing concerns about new hires' lack of professionalism. Punctuality, courtesy, and manners are among the qualities many employers see as having fallen through the cracks between the Baby Boomer generation and succeeding ones. Klein attributes this in part to the shift in America from the single-earner household to the double-earner household, a result of women entering the workforce en masse in the '70s. "Suddenly, no one was around to make sure you had table manners or were dressed neatly," says Klein. "And even more has been lost since we've become a 24/7 economy. We're dependent on female labor and that's not going to change, but we haven't figured out anything to take the place at-home moms' jobs."

Despite the concerns expressed by many employers about the workplace ethics and general behavior of new hires, others disagree. Dave Anderson is chairman and founder of Sendmail, a company that routes 60 percent of all the e-mail on the Internet, as well CEO of the newly formed Evergrid, which develops software for high-performance technical computing. He disputes the notion that new hires lack professionalism, a work ethic, and applied skills. On the contrary, he says, it couldn't be "farther from the truth." His employees—mostly one to two years out of college—deal regularly with Wall Street brokerage firms and other high-level businesses. "They're not dressed in suits, they wear jeans and shorts, but they're well-mannered and aware of business standards," he says.

All New Grads Not Equal

In the area of applied skills, Anderson reports almost the opposite of what the survey says about new hires. "They're much better at working collaboratively, as part of a team, and have a greater understanding of processes than earlier grads have had," Anderson says. "Many are much more self-taught and self-guided, with lots of experience with open source and business internships under their belts."

The broad disconnect in the experience of employers such as Anderson, who admits to "being very picky" about the quality of new hires; Curson, who notes the "incredibly advanced technical capabilities" of recent hires with high-level degrees on his staff; and the majority of employers responding to the "Workforce Readiness" survey, suggests a growing disparity between workers with the most advanced degrees from the best schools and all other employees. This broadening gap also applies to the high school educated students who can be seen as set apart from all other groups because of their deficiency in virtually every crucial skill required for today's workplace.

It is difficult not to fear that this increasing divide will create a new and more stringent workforce hierarchy in American society, a distinctly un-American system with an elite, top-educated workforce maintaining power over a less-educated class that holds little chance of upward mobility.

The Global Threat

But while the United States battles its domestic issues, serious international threats are undermining its status as a global competitor. Producing and maintaining a prepared workforce is an ongoing challenge within an era of increased mobility of goods, services, labor, technology, and capital throughout the world. American employees no longer solely have the advantages provided by superior education and technical infrastructure. Nations around the world, such as India and China, have invested in education and technology to overcome barriers of communications, distance, and time to provide competitive products and services usually at much lower costs than those produced domestically. The result is a host of new threats to the American competitiveness on the horizon.

The Solutions

The sponsors of "The Workforce Readiness Report Card" ask, "How can the United States continue to compete in a global economy if the entering workforce is made up of high school students who lack the skills they need and college graduates that are mostly 'adequate' rather than 'excellent?'"

They look to two basic solutions to ensure that the nation's students are prepared to successfully meet the demands of the 21st century workforce. First, schools must find ways to teach applied skills integrated with core academic subjects. "America needs to relearn how to grow talent indigenously," Fadel says. "Teaching content and skills together is not a new concept—it goes back to Socratic methods. Technology just helps do it on a broader scale." (T&L will explore how cutting-edge districts are dealing with this challenge in the January issue).

Second, the business community must be more active in defining the skills they need from their new employees and then partner with schools to create opportunities for students to obtain them. "We need cross-sector dialogue that is not politically charged," Klein says. "There should be ongoing discussion among all stakeholders—education, business, and government—about what the ideal state is and how we can get there."

School-business partnerships can also provide direct learning opportunities such as internships and summer jobs, employee mentors and tutors, investments in proven work preparation courses, and monetary resources to find new solutions to this challenge.

The Future

If one is to take at face value the findings of "The Workforce Readiness Report Card," the United States faces a perfect storm of challenges arising from the disconnect between education and workforce values, the growing disparity in the degree of preparation of new hires, and the apparent inability of nearly all graduates to communicate effectively. But how do educators feel about this? Do these findings resonate with their experiences in the field? Do they agree that education is facing a serious crisis? Or are we making good progress in keeping up with skills required for the 21st century workplace? We'd like to hear your thoughts—e-mail your opinions to

Susan McLester is editor-in-chief of T&L. Todd McIntire is vice president at Edison Schools.