High School, College Graduates Lack Basic and Applied Skills, Employers Say

Published December 1, 2006

High school and college graduates lack basic and applied skills, say business leaders, according to two surveys released in October.

On October 2, the Conference Board, a global business membership and research organization, released the results of its survey of 431 employers on recently hired high school and college graduates.

While basic knowledge and skills such as reading comprehension and mathematics were deemed important, employers said applied skills–such as work ethic, communication, collaboration, and critical thinking–are even more essential to workplace success.

According to the survey, new job entrants lack both.

Losing Jobs

Linda Barrington, the Conference Board’s director of management research, said her group embarked on the study because they hear a continual “drumbeat about the shortage of skilled workers” from businesses nationwide. In a global hiring environment, she noted, employers can hire qualified workers from other countries when they cannot find them domestically.

“Employers make decisions based on perception, and when workers are seen as deficient in skills, that will affect where [businesses] look for employees and their willingness to look out of the [United States],” Barrington said. Americans are an expensive workforce, she noted, so “we have to be that much better.”

When there is a mismatch between the skills needed and the skills at hand, Americans lose their competitiveness in a global market, Barrington said.

Lacking Skills

The Conference Board found a significant mismatch between the skills employers require and those graduates have. In the survey, 70 percent said high school graduates lack applied skills, and 40 percent said they lack basic skills in the reading, writing, and math needed for the job.

The majority of employers surveyed, 81 percent, believe new hires to be deficient in written communication. High school graduates lack grammar and spelling skills, as well as the ability to write memos, letters, and technical reports, the respondents said.

The lack of critical thinking ability is also a problem, according to 70 percent of respondents. Most respondents said high school graduates are adequately prepared in terms of information technology application and the ability to work in teams and with diverse people.

Planning Ahead

In general, most employers said two- and four-year college graduates have adequate job preparation, though few believe them to be “excellently” prepared.

A diploma doesn’t guarantee good writing, for example, according to the survey. Nearly half of the respondents see their employees with associate’s degrees as being deficient in writing.

Survey participants said creativity and innovation will be their two most pressing future needs, and 63 percent believe facility with foreign languages will be important.

“All stakeholders (business, educators, and community members) should consider methods of enhancing important workplace skills” by creating opportunities for students to participate in internships, work-study programs, summer jobs, job shadowing, mentoring, and on-the-job training, the study authors wrote.

They recommend stakeholders encourage creative thinking, development of leadership skills, and teamwork. The authors also suggest more discussion among stakeholders and new research, including the creation of case studies of successful programs and evaluation methods.

Getting a Picture

An October 12 report by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE), based on three focus groups of 23 employers statewide, reported similar findings.

According to the report, high school graduates lack basic and applied or “soft” skills such as communications (oral, written, and presentation), basic math and computer application, problem-solving, and even basic work behavior (work ethic and etiquette).

The MBAE wrote the report to give education reformers a clear picture of the deficiencies among new workforce entrants, said MBAE Managing Director Linda M. Noonan. Massachusetts is in the midst of a statewide discussion about what students need to know and be able to do when they graduate from high school in order to succeed in the workforce or higher education.

“We wanted to define from the employer perspective what work readiness skills are needed from graduates,” said Noonan.

The MBAE recommends schools:

  • require all high school graduates to participate in internships, paid employment, or community service;
  • increase students’ public speaking opportunities and require an oral exam to prove speaking skills; and
  • engage students in teamwork and activities that impose deadlines and penalties for tardiness.

Krista Kafer ([email protected]) is a freelance writer in Denver, Colorado.

For more information …

The following documents addressing workforce readiness are available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to http://www.policybot.org and select the topic/subtopic combination Education: Workforce Development, or search for the specific document numbers identified below.

“Are They Really Ready to Work? Employers’ Perspectives on the Basic Knowledge and Applied Skills of New Entrants to the 21st Century Workforce,” Jill Casner-Lotto and Linda Barrington, the Conference Board, et al. on October 10, 2006. Document #20154.

“Preparing for the Future: Employer Perspectives on Work Readiness Skills,” Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE), October 12, 2006. Document #20155.

“The Literacy of America’s College Students,” by Justin D. Baer, Andrea L. Cook, and Stéphane Baldi, American Institutes for Research, January 2006. Document #20156.