69% Job Seekers Lack
Basic Employability Skills
Workforce Needs Polish, US Businesses Declare
By Leon Lazaroff
National Correspondent
Chicago Tribune

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- As lawmakers and educators struggle to improve high schools in the U.S., businesses and labor unions say they are alarmed that even job seekers with a diploma can't function in the workplace.
It's a problem, they say, that threatens to cripple American productivity at home and competition abroad.
Discouraged by the work habits of many new employees, a handful of states, led by New York, are working to create a nationally recognized "work readiness" credential. Proponents say the credential would certify that a prospective employee understands the importance of "soft skills" such as punctuality, a willingness to accept supervision and an ability to work in a group.
"You'd think people would know to call in sick when they're not coming to work, but that's not always the case," said Michael Kauffman, an executive at Anoplate Corp., a 175-person metal manufacturer in Syracuse. "We're having many more problems than in the past getting people who understand what it means to work in an office or a factory."
At a state job-training and education center in Brooklyn, New York's Workforce Investment Board recently began testing a "work readiness" exam developed by SRI International, a research group based in California. Tests will also be held in Florida, New Jersey, Washington and Rhode Island, as well as the District of Columbia, which all contributed funds to develop the exam.
Job seekers enrolled at the Brooklyn Educational Opportunity Center will be given a two- to three-hour exam that will check for reading and math skills in addition to speaking and listening habits. They will also be given "situational judgment" questions to gauge probable work performance.
Organizers say the credential should be ready by spring 2006 and would be administered by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in conjunction with local chapters and state agencies. Whether it would be required for high school students, said the Chamber's Sondra Stein, would be up to individual states.
Aaron Harewood, 20, entered the Brooklyn center last year after graduating from George Wingate High School, one of seven Brooklyn high schools scheduled to close in June 2006 after the state Department of Education classified it as "low performing."
Harewood, who has never had a job and is studying to receive a certificate at the center in computer technology, said a work readiness credential would probably help him find employment.
"In high school, they only focused on the work you normally do in college--not on work skills," he said. "You realize afterward that it would have been nice if you'd ever been aware of all this so when you face the real world you wouldn't be so unprepared."
The test, its proponents say, would also be used to evaluate job-training programs like the Brooklyn center that receive federal and state funding.
Adding to curriculum
In Illinois, the Chicago Public Schools' Office of Education To Careers has campaigned for the state to join the fledgling national effort.
Jill Wine-Banks, the program's director and a former Maytag Corp. and Motorola Inc. executive, joined the city's school system two years ago with a mandate to incorporate "work readiness" skills into the high school curriculum. Since September, she says 60 Chicago high schools with about 55,000 students have begun to use short videos and workshops in classes as a means to discuss how to negotiate with a co-worker, speak to a client or carefully follow directions.
"Unions and business leaders told us we were doing a good job training students in technical areas but that it was these `soft skills' that we take for granted that they were missing," Wine-Banks said.
In November, at Wine-Banks' invitation, the director of a federal program called Equipped for the Future, which has spearheaded a "work readiness" credential, met with members of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce and the Chicago Workforce Board to gather statewide support for the certificate.
Illinois has yet to decide whether to endorse the credential.
Julio Rodriguez of the Bureau of Workforce Development at the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, said Illinois already teaches job readiness through its One-Stop Career Centers, local offices that coordinate federal and state employment services.
"Behavioral skills are hard to quantify," he said. "We're all kind of watching [the pilot tests] to see what develops."
Chamber takes over
Last month, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce took over responsibility for Equipped for the Future, hiring the Department of Labor official who had previously administered it.
With the chamber as the project's sponsor, Sherryl Weems, executive director of the Educational Opportunity Center at the University of Buffalo, said she is optimistic that more states will endorse the credential.
"We didn't want this to be a labor or education thing but rather to be an employer thing," she said. "So, it made sense for the chamber to act as an umbrella."
Skeptics of a work readiness credential warn that it could distract students and educators away from "hard skills."
In Virginia, Gov. Mark Warner has taken a slightly different approach to the problem. Warner helped create a Career Readiness Certificate, which tests for math, applied math and reading for information but leaves out soft skills. Three states in addition to Virginia use the certificate, which is administered by WorkKeys, a program of ACT Inc., the Iowa City-based research group.
Barbara Bolin, Warner's special adviser on workforce development, said she is skeptical of the chamber's project. Like Illinois' Rodriguez, she says soft skills would be "extraordinarily difficult to assess."
Others caution against integrating new programs into high school curricula.
"Schools should be focused on getting kids to read, and these other things like understanding authority and showing up on time will take care of themselves," said Jay Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a New York City think tank.
No guarantee
But Phyllis Eisen of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Manufacturers, counters that while schools should always focus first on hard skills, those alone are no guarantee that younger workers can move into high-tech factory jobs.
She pointed to a 2001 National Association of Manufacturers survey of its members, later dubbed the "Skills Gap," as support for a work readiness credential.
Employers surveyed in the study reported that while 32 percent of job applicants possessed inadequate reading and writing skills, 69 percent lacked basic employability skills such as reading with understanding, speaking clearly, actively listening and resolving conflict.
"It's not an either-or proposition," Eisen said, referring to hard and soft skills. "For generations, the historic advantage of the U.S. economy was its skilled workforce, and right now, that's slipping away."
While the AFL-CIO and National Association of Manufacturers have clashed over wage issues and foreign trade, Paul Cole, secretary-treasurer of the New York State AFL-CIO says the two groups agree that a more efficient and higher-skilled workforce can ensure that well-paying jobs are not exported.
"If we infuse education and job-training with an emphasis on `employability skills,' then we develop workers who not only can get jobs, they can keep them as well," he said.
That's a point that resonates with Ana Rosado, 20, who dropped out in 9th grade and now studies at the Brooklyn Educational Opportunity Center.
"If you're not punctual or [don't] communicate well, you're not going to stay employed," she said. "I'd like to work a while and afterward I would like to go to college."
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