Monday, February 4, 2008

Is Maine's workforce in need of a skills upgrade?

WorkReady™ continues to gain advocates wherever it is offered. Most business leaders recognize that the requisite skills required for success in the workplace are not readily apparent in many jobseekers filling out applications and being granted interviews.

While the WorkReady™ program continues to garner positive reviews from employers in Lewiston/Auburn, where it was originally piloted (and is now being offered for the sixth time), it sometimes is a tougher sell elsewhere. I’m not sure why it is, but here is a scenario I’ve run into occasionally, like a recent conversation I had with a business person in economically depressed Oxford County, where pulp and paper has been the area’s “bread and butter.”

His take on the local workforce was that they didn’t "have any refugees, or immigrants" and that no one in his area needed to learn how to “show up on time and sober for work.” Apparently, his perception of ready-to-work programs is that only the "New Mainer" population, or derelicts, are in need of skills upgrades.

I was sorry to burst this person’s bubble, by letting him in on a little secret—Maine’s workforce isn’t as well-versed in the “soft,” or "applied" skills as he seems to believe that they are. Anyone who has transacted business at a restaurant, a local bank, an area grocery store, or other place of commerce, can relate their own “horror story” of a worker who came up short on the customer service scale. In my opinion, waiting for a sales associate to finish their cell phone conversation, before acknowledging me in the checkout aisle, isn’t award-winning customer service.

The highly respected Conference Board, issued a cautionary tale of their own, when in 2006, they issued a report titled, Are They Really Ready To Work? Employers’ Perspectives on the Basic Knowledge and Applied Skills of New Entrants to the 21st Century U.S. Workforce.

The report clearly delineates what constitues workforce readiness in today's world and issued a report card” on U.S. workplaces. The report was clear—there are definitely deficiencies indicated across the U.S., in the area of essential, basic skills.

Here is a list of the top five skills that respondents indicated would increase in importance over the next five years:

  • Critical thinking/problem solving
  • Information technology application
  • Teamwork/collaboration
  • Creativity/innovation
  • Diversity

Leadership and oral communication were listed sixth and seventh.

Imparting these foundational skills are all key elements in the WorkReady™ curriculum, a curriculum that relied upon the input of local employers during its development.

The skills tied to creativity/innovation are interesting. Daniel Pink, in his book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future, states that “the future belongs to a different kind of person with a different kind of mind.” These different kinds of people, like storytellers—creative and holistic “right-brain thinkers,”—these types of skills represent a “fault line” between who gets ahead and who doesn’t.

Rather than wallow in the realm of “doom and gloom,” Pink (and the Conference Board report, for that matter) shows us that it's possible to teach the skills necessary to succeed in the 21st century world of work. The left-brain, automated typ of stuff, is being off-shored, or continues to occupy the low-wage realm of employment. The economic prosperity that Maine needs to turn its focus towards, is tied to skills that aren’t necessarily being taught, but could be.

If this kind of stuff intrigues you, let me recommend this article, by Mark Prensky. He speaks eloquently to differences in learning and more importantly, communication styles.

For more from the Conference Board and the issue of work skills, visit the website for The Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

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