Lack of Soft Skills is the Real Issue in Labor ‘Mismatch’
By George C. Ford, Reporter
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - Much has been said in the current presidential campaign about a “skills mismatch” as the reason employers are unable to find qualified applicants at a time when 13 million people cannot find a job.
The Romney campaign claims that a skills mismatch “lies at the heart of our jobs crisis.”
Earlier this year in his State of the Union speech, President Obama cited conversations with business leaders who could not find qualified workers, and then proposed “a national commitment to train two million Americans with skills that will lead directly to a job.”
While more money for job-specific “hard” occupational skills training is repeatedly touted as the answer to the problem, drilling deeper into employer surveys reveals a different paradigm.
Skills 2014, a report released in the spring of 2011 by the Corridor Alliance and Kirkwood Community College, cited four priorities listed by employers in connection with applicants’ missing soft skills.
Communication skills that include interpersonal skills, oral communication, ability to express ideas clearly, crucial conversations and tact.
Dependability, including high work ethic, dedication, timeliness, professionalism, accountability, engaging, commitment, willingness and ethical.
Conflict resolution and customer service skills that include building rapport, teamwork, understanding of manners and etiquette, ability to accept change and service orientation.
Problem solving, critical thinking and listening, leadership and presentation skills.
A 2011 employer survey from the Manufacturing Institute found that the top skill deficiency among manufacturing workers was “inadequate problem-solving skills.” Also cited by the employers was “inadequate basic employability skills” — attendance, timeliness, work ethic and similar aspects.
A survey of more than 1,300 companies earlier this year by Manpower, the staffing agency, found 26 percent complaining about the lack of such soft skills.
“I thing some colleges push too hard for training. ‘You get our degree and you get this particular job,’” said Tom Castle, interim assistant provost and dean of adult programs at Mount Mercy University. “That’s really not what it’s about.
“I think an institution that says ‘We want to educate the whole person to be a good thinker, a good decision-maker and someone who wants to continue to learn’ will prepare graduates who can transition into multiple jobs through their lifetime.”
Castle, a PhD student at the University of Iowa, said research for his doctoral dissertation shows collaborative learning has a dramatic effect on the development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
“People learn to challenge each other and to think and question by working collaboratively,” he said. “When people are working independently, they lose some of that critical thinking.
“That’s the focus of our adult programs at Mount Mercy. They work collaboratively and, when they graduate, they can go out, work in teams and solve problems.”
For Jon Ockander, 35, problem solving and critical thinking skills were crucial to his own career transition from construction to nursing.
“Experience allows you to have intuition and gives you the ability to think on your feet,” Ockander said. “In excavation, it’s critically important to understand how your actions can affect other people working on a project with you.
“There was a lot of life experience that I was able to apply to my time in school. I was older than several of my teachers, so I was more able to relate to what they were telling us.”
Ockander, who is finishing up excavation work for Barnhart Custom Service in West Branch, graduated from Kirkwood Community College and passed his state boards in May to become a registered nurse. For the last four years, he has worked 45 to 50 hours during the day and attended classes at night and on weekends at Kirkwood.
Ockander is a strong proponent of “always replace yourself.” To that end, he has been teaching a younger Barnhart employee how to safely operate excavation equipment.
“I’ve been explaining to him that you can be the best machine operator in the world, but you’re worthless if you can’t see into the future,” Ockander said.
“You need to be thinking four or five steps ahead. You need to be thinking about your crew and how putting the dirt in a particular place will make the project run faster.”
While employers say lack of soft skills is hindering job applicants, two other factors also may also be at work.
Fifty-four percent of the employers responding to the Manpower survey said applicants are “looking for more pay than is offered.” When companies seek to fill jobs at a certain wage and no one applies, what some are terming a “skills” mismatch more correctly may be called a “pay” mismatch.
The collapse of the nation’s housing market since 2008 also is a factor influencing hiring.
Normally, as the economy improves, people are inclined to relocate from communities where jobs are scarce to areas where companies are hiring. But depressed home values have made it much harder for Americans to move because selling a home is more difficult than it was a decade ago.
That’s an obstacle facing 10.7 million Americans — or 22 percent of homeowners with a mortgage — who owe more than their homes are worth, according to CoreLogic, a Santa Ana, Calif., company that tracks changes in the real estate market.
A study co-authored by Joseph Gyourko, professor of real estate finance at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, found homeowners who are “underwater” are 30 percent less likely to move than those who rent or have equity in their homes.
Some companies are attempting to counter that potential obstacle by offering more generous relocation packages that cover the cost of selling a house for less than the purchase price. Still others are offering applicant-specific relocation allowances, deviating from the one-size-fits-all approach to recruiting of past years.
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