commentary

April Jobs Report Holds Out Hope For These Entry-Level Workers

With summer just on the horizon, about three-and-a-half million high school seniors will soon graduate.

For those graduates who plan on finding a part-time or full-time job, the April jobs report shows that numerous opportunities await them, particularly in the service sector. Among the 164,000 net new jobs added, an impressive 119,000—nearly three quarters—were service-related. Jobs in this realm include many that attract young adults for example, customer service representatives, marketers, and retail associates.

While these high school graduates have good prospects for attaining entry-level work, it turns out that keeping the job and rising through the ranks may prove harder.

These service-oriented jobs really value "soft skills," like patience, teamwork, perseverance, and communication. But, as technologically savvy and smart as these young adults may be, new research out of the Committee for Economic Development finds that many appear to have a soft skills deficit. In focus groups throughout the country, both parents and employers shared this concern.

Despite the premium that employers place on technical skills, the need for soft skills has grown even stronger. For example, the Wall Street Journal surveyed close to 900 executives. Ninety-two percent said the importance of soft skill attributes were on par with technical skills or exceeded them. However, 89 percent of these business leaders said they have a "very or somewhat difficult" time finding workers who possess those necessary skills.

Moreover, the concern extends beyond the corner office: CareerBuilder found that 77 percent of surveyed employers (hiring managers and HR) rated soft skills as being of equal importance to cognitive skills such as math and science. When individuals lack soft skills, companies run the risk of suffering from high turnover, terminations, and ultimately, lost productivity.

While addressing this gap may seem hard for employers, it would benefit their businesses if they became involved. The need for companies to engage on this front could not come at a more urgent time, given the reality of ongoing labor shortages caused by the mass retirement of baby boomers, many of whom work in the services sector. Employers must become adaptable at the community level in order to create a sustainable talent pipeline.

On the upside, the research found business leaders agree that exposure to the workplace is helpful as one strategy for developing soft skills – the creation of a worker who has a positive attitude, is resilient, motivated, and a problem solver.

Internship and apprenticeship–type programs can strengthen and bolster soft skills, in addition to the perhaps more obvious technical skills. And it should be noted that soft skills and technical skills can be developed simultaneously – they need not be isolated.

As just one example, CVS Health has a program that exposes and trains high school students for careers in the science-heavy pharmaceutical industry.

These and other workplace learning experiences boost the development of communication, conflict management, and time management skills. Students in a workplace are exposed to ethical situations.

They gain appreciation for what it means to act ethically. They also increase their understanding of what it means to treat others with respect, and have others extend that same treatment back. These are all characteristics that just about every parent hopes to see in their adult children, and that employers hope to find in new employees.

Any human capital challenge must begin and end with humans themselves. In this case, the people of the business world must be willing to cross over into the education community to work with teachers, administrators, and parents.

The need for communication among stakeholders means that many communities could even benefit from an intermediary to serve as a conduit for gathering and sharing information.

The April jobs report shows vast opportunity for those high school seniors who will soon graduate and then jump into the world of work. But opportunity by no means ensures success. Putting greater priority on developing soft skills will play no small part in realizing these students' workplace success – both now and throughout their careers.

Commentary by Steve Odland, CEO of the Committee for Economic Development (CED) and former CEO of Office Depot and AutoZone; and Cindy Cisneros, vice president of education programs at CED. Read the organization's new report on workforce readiness here. Follow Steve Odland on Twitter @CEDUpdate and @SteveOdland.