In this time of economic downturn and high unemployment, an amazing number of employers complain that they have jobs to offer but can't find qualified workers. Often, these are extremely high-tech jobs that require specific and intense training. But the problem may be more basic than this.
Too many young people are simply unprepared to enter the work world, at any level. Is this the fault of the schools, of businesses, of parents -- and how do we fix it?
A fascinating article in two newspapers serving the northern Illinois towns of Sterling, Dixon and Rock Falls said that too many young people -- high school graduates, largely unlikely to go on to college -- simply have no idea how to apply for a job, or any clue as to the impression they make on a potential employer. These are "soft skills," the reporter, Bridget Flynn, wrote, as opposed to the "hard skills" of running machinery, but they are as crucial as math or science when it comes to getting a job.
Some job-seekers come to an interview in pajama pants, Flynn wrote. Employers tell horror stories of young applicants texting during an interview, or answering cell phones. Tattoos and piercings may be stylish but can doom an applicant's chances: rings and other piercings can get caught in machinery, and many employers don't want workers with vivid and visual tattoos representing their company to the public.
Flynn reported on a 21st Century Learning Summit at Sauk Valley Community College, where employers said that too many applicants can't fill out an application and, all too often, just don't understand what a business is: "they don't have any concept of what it means to make money," one employer said.
As with many articles these days, the comments from readers were as interesting as the article itself. Largely, they debated the blame for this state of affairs.
Businesses took their lumps: "Businesses got rid of their apprentice programs because it was cheaper to hire a journeyman trained by someone else. And now they are all standing around whining about qualified help. Maybe they should become proactive and invest in some training instead of expecting it to come to the door for free."
That's a cheap shot, another reader commented: "It is not the business' responsibility to teach a person to look you in the eye, when speaking or listening instead of looking at your text messages. It is not the business' responsibility to teach a person to dress like they want to impress someone in order to get a job."
You're both wrong, another said: (These) "are problems that can be fixed by being a good parent."
I don't know the specific problems in the Sauk Valley but I've talked with enough employers and schools throughout the Midwest to offer a judgment -- it's everybody's problem.
Too many schools feel they've done all they need to do for their students' job futures by giving them a diploma. Too many businesses feel they've done all they need for education by paying taxes. Too many parents came up in an era of plentiful jobs or spent their lives doing basic factory job that don't exist anymore.
Many high schools and their counselors assume that all students will go on to college. Some will, and the rest should at least attend community colleges. But one purpose of education at all levels is to prepare students for a lifetime of meaningful work. Learning to write fluently and to cope with mathematics is part of this training. But so is some education in how the world works. Schools that don't teach the "soft skills" of the working world are failing their students.
But what are these skills? What do businesses want? This is where businesses have responsibility.
Once upon a time, almost any high school student in the Midwest could land a summer job: that's where most of us learned the "soft skills" -- showing up on time, working reliably, following a dress code, learning how to talk to adults. These jobs weren't exactly high-tech: often they were construction jobs or farm work or tending a counter at the 7-11. In addition to these summer jobs, many businesses offered apprenticeships.
In the current job markets, these jobs are vanishing. But while they lasted, they enrolled businesses as educators, as well as employers.
Businesses still need to be educators. I'm not suggesting that CEOs desert their offices to teach classes at the local high school, although some do. But businesses do need to tell schools, loud and clear, just what employers in this day and age want and need from employees. They need to tell teachers, and especially vocational counselors, what they will expect from students. They should bring classes into the office or factory for intensive seminars on what it means to hold a job: any student who shows up in pajama pants or who texts during the lecture should be told on the spot that this behavior doesn't cut it.
Students -- or their teachers -- need this plain talk, whether they like it or not. It beats being unemployed.
Finally, parents. It is parents' jobs to prepare their children for life, at all levels. Most parents work for a living, so know the importance of a good job. Many parents start this training early, by requiring household chores in exchange for an allowance, or by enforcing discipline within the most basic collective of all, the family.
But it's a new world out there. Those old factory jobs are gone. More work is in services, less in industry, which means more face-to-face dealings with customers. The skills and requirements aren't the same as when many parents landed that first job.
So parents need an education, too, in preparing their children for work. That 21st Century Learning Summit involved employers talking with teachers. Might I suggest another summit, in which employers talk to parents?