by Lisa Thompson

In the last 30 years, the U.S. economy has shifted dramatically from manufacturing to information services. Along with this shift came an equally dramatic change in employee skill sets. Yet, there is a growing disconnect between the skills new workers bring to the workforce and the skills employers require.


Marketable Skills

Although the U.S. education system places the most important on academic skills, there are other valuable skills — sometimes called applied or soft skills — that make people highly marketable. According to the American Management Association’s 2010 critical skills survey (.pdf) and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, the following skill set (the four Cs) is crucial for today's employees:


  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Communication
  • Creativity and innovation
  • Collaboration and team building


These skills were considered "most important" or "somewhat important" by 92 percent or more of the employers surveyed. Why? The pace of change in business and global competitiveness were ranked as the top two reasons. And most employers surveyed believe these skills will become more important in the next three to five years.


In comparison, a 2008 study by the Society for Human Resource Management and the Wall Street Journal indicated that adaptability as well as critical thinking and problem solving are the most important skills for workers today. This sentiment was mirrored by employees who ranked the importance of various skills to their job.


The Skills Gap

The good news for high school and college graduates entering the workforce for the first time is that there will be more job openings as the baby boomers begin to retire this year. The bad news is that employers may find those same graduates ill-equipped to fill their employment needs.


Skill deficiencies are most noticeable in high school graduates. Results from the 2006 Are They Really Ready To Work? (.pdf) study indicated that business leaders found high school graduates were most lacking in:


  • basic writing, math, and reading comprehension
  •  written communications
  • critical thinking/problem solving
  • professionalism/work ethic


The same study indicated that two-year and four-college graduates were better prepared for entry-level jobs and had few and lower deficiencies (.pdf). However, both showed weakness in writing and written communication skills. Four-year graduates also lacked leadership skills while two-year college students were weak in several other areas, including life-long learning and self-direction, creativity and innovation, and critical thinking and problem solving.


Learning the Skills Employers Want

Although college graduates of all levels clearly had areas where they could improve, they are significantly more prepared than high school graduates to meet the workforce needs. Why is this significant? Consider this: in 2008, almost a third of Minnesota high school graduates did not attend college the fall after graduation.


If attending college is a key way to gain the applied skills employers want, then those students who don't graduate from high school or attend college face an employability problem. This is even more sobering when you consider these statistics in light of the five-year hiring trend projected by business leaders in 2006 Are They Really Ready To Work? (.pdf) study:


  • 27.7 percent expected to reduce hiring of new entrants with only a high school diploma
  • 49.5 percent expected to increase hiring of two-year college/technical school graduates
  • 58.8 percent expected to increase hiring of four-year college graduates


A Bright Spot

All is not gloom and doom for the upcoming generation in terms of skill sets. The same studies that show a lack in basic and soft skills also tend to show that they are comfortable with diversity and team building. Today's high school and college graduates were born into the digital age and are comfortable using 21st century technology. However, they will need to temper and hone these skills to transfer them effectively and responsibility into a business environment.