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Basic, Applied Skills Deficiencies Threaten Workforce Competence

Two new reports reveal how unprepared U.S. workers are to compete in today’s labor market and what must occur to boost workforce competence in order to be competitive in the future.

Entrants into the workforce lack crucial basic and applied skills, according to the report The Ill-Prepared U.S. Workforce: Exploring the Challenges of Employer-Provided Workforce Readiness Training, produced by the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization Corporate Voices for Working Families, along with the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) and The Conference Board. Drawing from responses of 217 employers surveyed in 2008 about their training of newly hired graduates of high school and two- and four-year colleges, the report revealed that employer-sponsored readiness training is not correcting these deficiencies.

Almost half of respondents—representing manufacturing; financial services; non-financial services; and education, government and other nonprofit organizations—said they have to provide readiness training for new hires, with the majority rating their programs as only “moderately” or “somewhat” successful.

“The results of this study demonstrate how critical it is for companies to be more strategic and focused on efforts such as providing internships and working in partnership with community colleges on workforce readiness initiatives to prepare new entrants before they enter the workplace,” said Donna Klein, executive chair, Corporate Voices for Working Families, in a statement about the report, released July 14, 2009. “It is a losing strategy for employers to try to fill the workforce readiness gap on the job. They need to be involved much sooner to prepare new employees to succeed.”

Another report, Preparing the Workers of Today for the Jobs of Tomorrow, released July 13, 2009, by the President’s Council of Economic Advisors (CEA), makes similar assertions, noting that today’s jobs and those expected in the future require a greater degree of non-routine analytic and interactive tasks, such as frequent use of mathematics and high executive functioning, than occupations that have been in decline. In addition, there is increased awareness that interactive skills, such as effective communication and the ability to work with others, is growing more important.

The CEA report states that a diverse array of U.S. post-secondary education and training systems can provide the cognitive and interactive skills required for good, high-paying jobs. But high drop-out and non-completion rates of these intricate systems continues to diminish their effectiveness. And often these systems don’t map out clear skill requirements and career pathways to specific jobs.

“U.S. business is increasingly outspoken about the competitiveness threat posed by an ill-prepared workforce, but employers must do a better job of quantifying this threat and communicating it to key stakeholders,” said Mary Wright, program director for The Conference Board’s Workforce Readiness Initiative, in a statement about its co-published report.

The CEA report, however, suggests that curricula for occupation-oriented programs should be developed in collaboration with local employers and other workforce stakeholders.

“One of the great virtues of many ‘sub-baccalaureate’ training providers, such as community colleges, is that they can be nimble allies of employers and other workforce partners in providing customized training that is specific to the needs of a particular employer or industry.”

The report cites apprenticeship programs and sector-specific training programs as excellent sources of training that can be developed with the needs of workers and employers in mind.

“In any economy, having a knowledgeable, skilled workforce is critical for organizations to grow and be successful,” said Tony Bingham, ASTD president and CEO, in a statement. “As the skills gap widens among new entrants to the workforce, it's clear that all stakeholders—employers, education and the public workforce system—must collaborate to effectively prepare workers to be successful on the job.”

The groups' co-published report features case studies of several successful workforce readiness programs, noting that employers with successful workforce readiness training incorporate:

  • A cultural commitment to training and thorough job-readiness screening.
  • Strategic partnerships with local colleges that focus on integrating training with job-specific skills and career development.
  • Constant re-evaluation to align training with company needs.

"It doesn’t make any difference if you're operating a business in Mumbai, Beijing or New York,” said SHRM President and CEO Laurence O’Neil in a statement about the trade groups’ report. “The number one challenge facing every organization is finding and growing skilled talent. HR professionals are helping bridge the gap, finding ways to give employees the skills they need to add value and to be more valued. This isn't just an HR challenge, but a bottom-line global business problem."

In addition, employers should track the cost and quality of training programs and help to focus philanthropic dollars and public policy discussions on the need to link K-12, technical school and college education options to the workforce readiness skills that employers need, concludes the report. “Employers’ inability to detail their spending on remedial programs makes it impossible to assess the true costs of an ill-prepared workforce to their own bottom line or to that of the U.S. economy.”

The CEA report suggests that an effective national educational system requires:

  • That institutions and programs have goals that are aligned, and cumulative curricula, to promote lifelong learning.
  • Flexibly scheduling for post-secondary educational options and training in order to increase accessibility to potential participants.
  • Financial aid designed to meet the needs of all students.
  • Incentives to promote continuous improvement, innovation for institutions and programs.
  • Accountability for results.

“While education and training institutions must be held accountable for their results, it is not easy to craft effective accountability systems,” notes the CEA report. “Careful design with particular attention to intended—and unintended—consequences is critical to generating the types of incentives that will lead to an effective workforce system.”

Theresa Minton-Eversole is an online editor/manager for SHRM.