Good tech skills, poor talk skills

The next generation needs some help to prepare for work

Young workers in the United States aren’t ready for the workplace, according to a new report, and some Canadian experts feel the same is true on this side of the border.

The United States Conference Board report, based on a survey of 431 HR practitioners, found that high school and college graduates are lacking in basic academic and advanced skills necessary for success in their entry-level jobs.

Respondents said 72 per cent of new hires who are high school graduates are deficient in basic English writing skills, including grammar and spelling — a deficiency that a Canadian career coach sees north of the border.

“In my own one-on-one experience working with students, I really noticed a serious lack of ability, not only to communicate, but to understand what English grammar is all about,” said Barbara Kofman, principal of Toronto-based coaching organization CareerTrails. “That to me is one of the biggest problems in our educational system right now, that grammar isn’t taught anymore and students don’t even understand the fundamentals.”

Unfortunately, U.S. college graduates don’t fare much better with their written communication skills. Forty-seven per cent of respondents said graduates from two-year programs have poor writing skills and 28 per cent said graduates from four-year programs are deficient in this area.

In Canada, few post-secondary institutions require students to pass an English proficiency exam before graduation, said Kofman. So the lessons that aren’t taught in high school aren’t learned in post-secondary schools either.

Besides the basic academic skills, 70 per cent of respondents said high school graduates are deficient in applied skills, such as professionalism and work ethic, another deficiency that can be found in Canada. Sarah Canzano, president of Toronto-based IT recruiting firm IC Solutions, recalled one recent graduate who was turned down for a job because he showed up at the interview in sweat pants and a hooded sweatshirt.

But it isn’t all bad news for the next generation. Brad Antle, a senior learning specialist with computer giant IBM in Markham, Ont., has been very impressed with the young workers he meets.

“People definitely have their technical skills, but as part of our interview process we typically look beyond just those kinds of technical skills. We want to make sure we’re bringing people on board who have the professionalism and communication skills as well,” he said. “I’m quite impressed with what I’ve seen with regards to the level of professionalism, team work, leadership and ability to collaborate.”

The U.S. study supports some of what Antle is seeing in the workplace. It found that young workers, especially those with college degrees, score high in technical, diversity and critical thinking skills. Kofman agreed.

“This generation will really provide a lot of value add, in the sense that they do bring in the technical savvy and know-how, she said. “They think globally because that is the way that they were brought up and that’s a huge advantage that can be tapped into. Some of these other skills can be taught.”

Both the education system and employers can help teach these skills, she said. Some Canadian colleges offer courses that help prepare students for the world of work.

“A lot of these students are in technical programs and they do not know how to communicate,” she said.

Kofman taught a first-year program at Toronto’s Humber College that helped students understand their learning styles and taught critical thinking and communication skills. She would like to see all post-secondary schools offer career management programs that teach students some of the softer skills they’re lacking, such as goal setting, self-presentation, interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence.

Once in the world of work, these young people are eager to keep learning and be trained, said Kofman. That makes the orientation process that much more important.

“That’s part of the way that they’re going to learn, by having an opportunity to work with people who have succeeded and really understanding the expectations of the organization,” she said.

At IBM, all new hires go through a year-long training process to help them integrate into the company, said Antle. Throughout the year employees learn about IBM’s culture, professional development opportunities and how to set individual businesses goals, develop their skills and network. The new employee is also linked with a “connections” coach, another employee from the same business area whom the employee can go to with questions about the job and the business.

It can be hard to make managers understand the value of this year-long training, especially if it means a new employee isn’t always available for business needs, said Antle.

“We really work hard to help them understand the value of the training,” he said. “There certainly is evidence that there is an absolutely very positive impact on retention.”

This kind of support is exactly what the next generation is looking for, said Kofman. Employers need to get involved because, in the end, the business will benefit, she said.

Employers can take advantage of what these young workers bring to the table, such as their ability to multi-task and their willingness to learn, said Kofman. Where they’re lacking in certain skills, such as communication, the employer can provide training.

“The baby boomers are retiring and immigration is not keeping up with the future labour demand so (employers) are going to have to work with the Gen Ys as they come into the workforce. And the sooner they learn to capitalize on their strengths and train in the areas that they have not been properly trained on, the better (chance) it’s going to be a great relationship for both of them,” said Kofman.

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