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Strong training can make winners of low-skilled workers
We are a small manufacturing firm and operate in a “job shop” environment. Our problem has been that the folks we bring in at the entry level are less and less skilled than what we normally would find to be acceptable. We’ve lowered our standards to the point where I’m not sure we can go any lower. Many of these employees have poor basic skills, low self-esteem, poor work ethic, etc. and bring their personal problems into work. With unemployment so low, we can’t afford to be choosy and turn people away. I guess what I’m wondering is how to go about addressing their low-level skills as they come on board.
I’m sure this is a question with which many of our readers can resonate. This is an interesting question and one that does not have a lot of easy answers. But we’ll give it a try.
First, let’s step back for a second and talk about the general context in which people work here in the late 20th century.
Clearly, the nature of work has changed. Jobs have become more technical and demand higher skill sets, even at the entry level. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Education, approximately 90% of the jobs which have been created in the last eight years have demanded college-level math and reading skills.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, 21st century jobs will be increasingly even more demanding; 65% of all jobs in the new millennium will require more than a high school education. Twenty percent of jobs will require a bachelor’s degree and/or postgraduate education. Only 15% of jobs will be unskilled.
What you are seeing in your organization represents local evidence of the gap which exists between employees’ skill sets and the demands of the job. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that only about half of the students entering the workforce have the skills they need to do the jobs they are filling. Studies by other government agencies as well as private industry have concluded the same thing: US students graduate with poor academic skills, dysfunctional work habits, and inadequate occupational training. The widening gap between what is expected in the workplace and what prospective employees bring to the table is of concern to a variety of shareholders including educators, employers, and government officials.
Yet despite all of the negative commentary about the quality of education our students are receiving, it is also clear that one of the best things that a future worker can do is to stay in school. While it may be the case that staying in school does not guarantee the acquisition of skills which generalize to the job, leaving before graduation almost certainly portends a bleak future. In this regard, the U.S. Bureau of Labor tells us that the unemployment rate for high school graduates who do not enter college approximates 20%. Those who do not possess a high school diploma fare even worse.
So what then can be done to address this problem? One approach which is gaining momentum in some parts of the country is what is known as a school-to-work program. In essence, these are partnerships between business, labor, government, education, and community organizations that focus on preparing students for today’s high-tech business organizations. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the goals of such a program include:

  • Providing students with a relevant education by allowing them to explore different careers and see what skills are needed in today’s workplace
  • Providing job skills through structured training and work-based learning experiences
  • Providing credentials for students by establishing work, education and training standards that ensure that they receive a proper education
    I am not advocating that you launch a school-to-work program on your own (you do not have the resources to do it if you are small company). However, by partnering with other organizations in your community and establishing communication channels with local high schools and colleges, you may find that this program makes sense.
    Additionally, I would urge you to examine the training programs you offer in-house. Training has been a frequent focus of my columns over the past year or so and here is another case where it is relevant.
    Perhaps what you need to begin offering is a series of basic skills courses (e.g., the three R’s: reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic) as well as courses on topics like “How to be an effective worker at XYZ Co.” (e.g., set your alarm clock, arrange for reliable transportation, wear appropriate clothing, etc.). While this may seem like a lot of hand-holding, what are the alternatives? Ignore their unacceptably low skill sets and/or hope that they improve on their own? While the former approach carries with it costs and no firm guarantee of success (the employees may skip the classes or tune-out when they do attend), the latter approach is sure to fail.
    Further, I would explore broadening your company’s tuition reimbursement program. A more liberal policy where life skills courses, general education courses, etc. are reimbursed may be the “carrot” that some employees need to get back into the classroom to acquire the skills they need to succeed on the job.
    Another intervention to consider is the use of a mentoring program in which seasoned employees partner with junior employees, targeting specific job-related areas in need of shoring up. This kind of approach carries with it the added benefits of a safe learning environment and the development of trust and rapport.
    That kind of positive relationship can go a long way toward building up the esteem and confidence of employees who don’t feel good about themselves.
    In the final analysis, I advocate that the organization rely on its learning function in order to create a winning formula for helping employees succeed as they enter the organization today and prepare for the challenges of tomorrow.
    Unfortunately, it seems to be the case today that hiring someone on the basis that he or she is a graduate does not guarantee that person will be able to deliver. With that in mind, organizations like yours must work with their employees to develop the necessary skills. And, as I have discussed in this article, those skills may involve more than technical know-how. They may also include attributes which were taken for granted in the past.
    HR Connection is provided by Daniel Schroeder, Ph.D., of Organization Development Consultants, Inc. in Brookfield. Small Business Times readers who would like to direct a question to him may reach him at 827-1901, via fax at 827-8383, or via e-mail at

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