Critical skills gap threatens U.S. competitiveness


As the baby boom generation slowly exits the U.S. workplace, a new survey warns that the future workforce is ill-prepared and lacking in both basic academic aptitude and critical workplace skills such as teamwork, communication and creativity.

The scale of the problem facing America's employers emerges from detailed survey of 431 human resource officials carried out by The Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and the Society for Human Resource Management.

The report found that while employers expect young people to arrive with a core set of basic knowledge and the ability to apply their skills in the workplace, the reality is not matching the expectation.

"The future workforce is here, and it is ill-prepared," concludes the report.

Business leaders said that while the three "R's" are still fundamental to every employee's ability to do the job, applied skills such as teamwork, critical thinking, and communication are essential for success at work.

Yet far too many new entrants to the workforce appear to be inadequately prepared in these important skills.

Almost three quarters of those surveyed (70 per cent) cited deficiencies among incoming high school graduates in skills, such as professionalism, work ethic and basic work habits such as punctuality, working productively with others, time and workload management.

More than four out of 10 also complained that the incoming high school graduates they hired are inadequately prepared for even entry-level jobs, with many lacking basic skills in reading comprehension, writing and maths.

In particular, an astonishing eight out of 10 survey participants said that their high school graduate hires were deficient in written communications.

But these problems are not confined to high school graduates. Poor writing skills are also seen as a problem among college graduates, with almost half of those surveyed complaining two-year college graduates have problems with written communications.

"The basics plus an array of applied and social skills - from critical thinking to collaboration to communications - defines workforce readiness in the 21st century," says Ken Kay, President of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

Another deficiency identified in the research is around critical thinking and problem solving skills, areas that seven out of 10 employers view as problematic among recently hired high school graduates.

"Less than intense preparation in critical skills can lead to unsuccessful futures for America's youth, as well as a less competitive U.S. workforce," warned Richard Cavanagh, CEO of The Conference Board.

"This ultimately makes the U.S. economy more vulnerable in the global marketplace."

As the survey also makes clear, it also poses big questions for the future prospects of less qualified Americans. Almost one in three employers said that they planned to reduce the numbers of high school graduates they hire over the next five years while almost six out of 10 predict a corresponding increase in the numbers of four-year college graduates they hope to recruit.

Susan R. Meisinger, CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, said that the report raised very real questions about the competitiveness of the U.S. economy moving forward.

"This study should serve as an alert to educators, policy makers and those concerned with U.S. economic competitiveness that we may be facing a skills shortage," she said.

"One message of this study to educators, policy makers and those concerned with U.S. economic competitiveness is that new entrants to the U.S. workforce are not demonstrating levels of excellence necessary to compete successfully in the face of rising global labor market challenges."

"The importance of learning to communicate in writing and orally is paramount. Communication is a critical skill in the workplace, and one that many new entrants lack."