- BROOKLYN, N.Y. --
As lawmakers and educators struggle to improve high schools in the U.S.,
businesses and labor unions say they are alarmed that even job seekers
with a diploma can't function in the workplace.
- It's a problem, they say, that threatens to cripple American
productivity at home and competition abroad.
- Discouraged by the work habits of many new employees,
a handful of states, led by New York, are working to create a nationally
recognized "work readiness" credential. Proponents say the credential
would certify that a prospective employee understands the importance of
"soft skills" such as punctuality, a willingness to accept supervision
and an ability to work in a group.
- "You'd think people would know to call in sick when
they're not coming to work, but that's not always the case," said
Michael Kauffman, an executive at Anoplate Corp., a 175-person metal manufacturer
in Syracuse. "We're having many more problems than in the past getting
people who understand what it means to work in an office or a factory."
- At a state job-training and education center in Brooklyn,
New York's Workforce Investment Board recently began testing a "work
readiness" exam developed by SRI International, a research group based
in California. Tests will also be held in Florida, New Jersey, Washington
and Rhode Island, as well as the District of Columbia, which all contributed
funds to develop the exam.
- Job seekers enrolled at the Brooklyn Educational Opportunity
Center will be given a two- to three-hour exam that will check for reading
and math skills in addition to speaking and listening habits. They will
also be given "situational judgment" questions to gauge probable
- Organizers say the credential should be ready by spring
2006 and would be administered by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in conjunction
with local chapters and state agencies. Whether it would be required for
high school students, said the Chamber's Sondra Stein, would be up to individual
- Aaron Harewood, 20, entered the Brooklyn center last
year after graduating from George Wingate High School, one of seven Brooklyn
high schools scheduled to close in June 2006 after the state Department
of Education classified it as "low performing."
- Harewood, who has never had a job and is studying to
receive a certificate at the center in computer technology, said a work
readiness credential would probably help him find employment.
- "In high school, they only focused on the work you
normally do in college--not on work skills," he said. "You realize
afterward that it would have been nice if you'd ever been aware of all
this so when you face the real world you wouldn't be so unprepared."
- The test, its proponents say, would also be used to evaluate
job-training programs like the Brooklyn center that receive federal and
- Adding to curriculum
- In Illinois, the Chicago Public Schools' Office of Education
To Careers has campaigned for the state to join the fledgling national
- Jill Wine-Banks, the program's director and a former
Maytag Corp. and Motorola Inc. executive, joined the city's school system
two years ago with a mandate to incorporate "work readiness"
skills into the high school curriculum. Since September, she says 60 Chicago
high schools with about 55,000 students have begun to use short videos
and workshops in classes as a means to discuss how to negotiate with a
co-worker, speak to a client or carefully follow directions.
- "Unions and business leaders told us we were doing
a good job training students in technical areas but that it was these `soft
skills' that we take for granted that they were missing," Wine-Banks
- In November, at Wine-Banks' invitation, the director
of a federal program called Equipped for the Future, which has spearheaded
a "work readiness" credential, met with members of the Chicagoland
Chamber of Commerce and the Chicago Workforce Board to gather statewide
support for the certificate.
- Illinois has yet to decide whether to endorse the credential.
- Julio Rodriguez of the Bureau of Workforce Development
at the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, said Illinois
already teaches job readiness through its One-Stop Career Centers, local
offices that coordinate federal and state employment services.
- "Behavioral skills are hard to quantify," he
said. "We're all kind of watching [the pilot tests] to see what develops."
- Chamber takes over
- Last month, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce took over responsibility
for Equipped for the Future, hiring the Department of Labor official who
had previously administered it.
- With the chamber as the project's sponsor, Sherryl Weems,
executive director of the Educational Opportunity Center at the University
of Buffalo, said she is optimistic that more states will endorse the credential.
- "We didn't want this to be a labor or education
thing but rather to be an employer thing," she said. "So, it
made sense for the chamber to act as an umbrella."
- Skeptics of a work readiness credential warn that it
could distract students and educators away from "hard skills."
- In Virginia, Gov. Mark Warner has taken a slightly different
approach to the problem. Warner helped create a Career Readiness Certificate,
which tests for math, applied math and reading for information but leaves
out soft skills. Three states in addition to Virginia use the certificate,
which is administered by WorkKeys, a program of ACT Inc., the Iowa City-based
- Barbara Bolin, Warner's special adviser on workforce
development, said she is skeptical of the chamber's project. Like Illinois'
Rodriguez, she says soft skills would be "extraordinarily difficult
- Others caution against integrating new programs into
high school curricula.
- "Schools should be focused on getting kids to read,
and these other things like understanding authority and showing up on time
will take care of themselves," said Jay Greene, a senior fellow at
the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a New York City think tank.
- No guarantee
- But Phyllis Eisen of the Washington, D.C.-based National
Association of Manufacturers, counters that while schools should always
focus first on hard skills, those alone are no guarantee that younger workers
can move into high-tech factory jobs.
- She pointed to a 2001 National Association of Manufacturers
survey of its members, later dubbed the "Skills Gap," as support
for a work readiness credential.
- Employers surveyed in the study reported that while 32
percent of job applicants possessed inadequate reading and writing skills,
69 percent lacked basic employability skills such as reading with understanding,
speaking clearly, actively listening and resolving conflict.
- "It's not an either-or proposition," Eisen
said, referring to hard and soft skills. "For generations, the historic
advantage of the U.S. economy was its skilled workforce, and right now,
that's slipping away."
- While the AFL-CIO and National Association of Manufacturers
have clashed over wage issues and foreign trade, Paul Cole, secretary-treasurer
of the New York State AFL-CIO says the two groups agree that a more efficient
and higher-skilled workforce can ensure that well-paying jobs are not exported.
- "If we infuse education and job-training with an
emphasis on `employability skills,' then we develop workers who not only
can get jobs, they can keep them as well," he said.
- That's a point that resonates with Ana Rosado, 20, who
dropped out in 9th grade and now studies at the Brooklyn Educational Opportunity
- "If you're not punctual or [don't] communicate well,
you're not going to stay employed," she said. "I'd like to work
a while and afterward I would like to go to college."
- Copyright © 2005, Chicago Tribune