Skills gap concerns employers

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 1, 2002

Two great concerns of employers today are finding good workers and training them. The difference between the skills needed on the job and those possessed by the applicants, called skills-gap, is of real concern to human resource managers and business owners seeking to hire competent employees.

While employers would prefer to hire people who are trained and ready to go to work, they usually are willing to provide the specialized, job-specific training necessary for those lacking such skills.

Most discussions concerning today's workforce turn to employability skills, says Dr. Jacquelyn Robinson, a community workforce development specialist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. Finding workers who have employability or job readiness skills that help fit into and remain in the work environment is a real problem.

"Employability skills are those basic skills necessary for getting, keeping and doing well on a job," says Robinson. "These are the skills, attitudes and actions that enable workers to get along with their fellow workers and supervisors and to make sound, critical decisions."

Unlike occupational or technical skills, employability skills are generic in nature rather than job specific and cut across all industry types, business sizes and job levels.

Employers need reliable, responsible workers who can solve problems and who have the social skills and attitudes to work together with other workers.

"Creativity, once a trait avoided by employers, is now prized among employers who are trying to create the empowered, high-performance workforce needed for competitiveness in today's marketplace. Employees with these skills are in demand and are considered valuable human capital assets to companies," says Robinson.

Employability skills are generally divided into three skill sets: basic academic skills, higher-order thinking skills and personal qualities.

Basic academic skills include reading, writing, science, math, oral communication and listening. These skills are essential for high job performance even in entry-level positions. Ideally, new hires will have the ability and the will to learn. They also need the ability to listen to and read instructions and then carry out those instructions. When asked for information, these individuals should be able to respond both orally and in writing, including recording and relaying information. Reading ability includes comprehending what has been read and using a variety of written materials, including graphs, charts, tables and displays.

The ability to think, reason and make sound decisions is crucial for employees desiring to do well and advance. These higher-order skills include learning, reasoning, creative thinking, decision making and problem solving.

An employee who can think critically, act logically and evaluate situations to make decisions and solve problems is a valuable asset to employers, says Robinson. Employees who apply these skills in the use of technology, instruments, tools and information systems are even more valuable. Employers usually will try to help valued employees seek and get more advanced training, thus widening the gap between those with higher-order skills and those possessing only basic academic skills.

Employers also put importance on personal skills or qualities, because in most jobs, it is difficult to use workers effectively who lack personal skills. Some personal skills or qualities employers look for in employees include honesty, self-confidence, self-control, self-motivation, sociability, adaptability, integrity, punctuality, being well-groomed, cooperative and having good work ethics and team spirit.

"Employees with good personal skills have confidence in themselves and deal with others honestly and openly, displaying respect for themselves, their co-workers, supervisors and clients regardless of other people's diversity and individual differences," adds Robinson.

"They view themselves as part of a team and are willing to work within the culture of the group. They have a positive attitude and the initiative to learn new things to get the job done. Rather than blaming others when things go wrong, they are accountable for their actions. They also set goals and priorities in their work and personal lives so that resources of time and money may be conserved and managed."

Employability skills are teachable skills and may be taught in home, school and employment settings. Allowing high school students to graduate without strong employability skills has far-reaching implications. Employability skills, especially development of strong personal qualities and values, should be taught at home to children by their parents. Parents need to be involved in goal setting and modeling behavior for their children. Teachers, trainers and supervisors also should set good examples for the desired workplace behavior.

"if good behavior is reinforced and good role models are presented, people can change for the better," says Robinson. "Employers, teachers and parents should remember that you get the behavior you reward and model."