Anyone who has spent time hiring and training entry-level employees has probably seen first hand how ill-prepared for the working world many of them are. Too many prospective employees are lacking important social skills that they will need to become successful at their jobs. They may have graduated high school or college with good grades, but in some respects, their schooling has not adequately prepared them for a career.
As our member companies continue to bounce back from the Great Recession, they are ready to add to their workforce, so it is important to have a pool of entry-level workers from which to draw. To that end, the NJ State Employment and Training Commission, a coalition of businesses leaders, educators, government agencies and nonprofits, has turned its focus to developing policies that will improve student employability and workforce education.
Employability skills or “soft skills” are terms used for a cluster of personal qualities, habits and attitudes that make someone a good employee—qualities such as self-motivation, punctuality, a good work attitude or work ethic.
A large percentage of employers are dissatisfied with the availability of entry-level workers because they lack these qualities. In a recent NJBIA survey, three-quarters of businesses reported that entry-level employees had fair or poor time management and written communications skills. Seven in ten said the same thing about critical-thinking skills and self-motivation. And more than half were not satisfied with basics such as punctuality and work ethic.
This is not only a New Jersey phenomenon. A new Gallup poll found that only 14 percent of Americans and only 11 percent of business leaders strongly agree that graduates have the “necessary skills and competencies to succeed in the workplace.”
There is a new urgency to this problem. As the workforce ages and baby-boomers retire, employers will need new workers to take their place. To compensate for the lack of qualifed applicants, employers have increased overtime and are cross-training existing staff. But these are only short-term solutions.
This skills gap has also created a significant barrier for economic growth. Businesses are beginning to expand and rehire for previously eliminated positions. In fact, New Jersey has regained over 50 percent of the number of jobs lost since January 2008. But further job growth is inhibited by the skills gap.
Only 11 percent of business leaders think graduates have the skills to succeed in the workplace.
Another recent study revealed that the level of success enjoyed by New Jersey manufactures is negatively impacted by a lack of skilled employees. Nearly 75 percent reported the skills deficit made it difficult to maintain production levels to meet customer demands, and 51 percent stated the shortage of workers with the necessary skills led to slower delivery of products to market.
Part of the problem is recognizing that there is a problem. While employers say graduates aren’t ready, another survey found that 96 percent of academic officers felt their graduates were well prepared for employment. A key task of our statewide employability coalition will be to shed light on the employer-educator disconnect and offer a shared commitment of supportive policies to improve student employability and workforce education.
A highly skilled workforce has long been a New Jersey strength. It is one of the reasons we remain competitive in attracting companies in the biotechnology, pharmaceuticals and science fields. However, we cannot accept a paradigm that does not adequately prepare recent graduates and existing job seekers to find employment. The state now has a unique opportunity to ensure all students receive an education that provides them with the skills necessary for successful employment. The important work of the Employment and Training Commission should address an issue that has long needed our attention.