To Solve the Skills Gap in Hiring, Create Expectations in the Classroom

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

February 07, 2016

On the first day of classes I, like most teachers, introduce my students to the syllabus and class expectations. I have draconian-seeming rules that students often don’t believe and even many colleagues question.

If students are late, they are absent. I do not account for any reasons; they may be absent three times over the semester. They are responsible for contacting classmates about missed work when they are absent. They are responsible for submitting work on time. This also means they are responsible for knowing what work needs to be submitted and when.

The syllabus indicates assignment due dates, and any changes are posted on Blackboard. If students forget about an assignment, that is indeed unfortunate. I don’t offer makeup opportunities or extra credit. Classroom participation and engagement with the work is their opportunity to impress me, since they can shine there even if they are struggling with written work.

These rules exist for a reason.

In the large debate around a nationwide skills gap that colleges must deal with, attention focuses on reading, writing, math abilities, tech knowledge, and other specialized skills needed for specific industries. Yet, over all, employers report little deficit in basic reading, writing, and math skills; nationwide tests show that students now are doing as well as or better than before in those areas.

Much of that data is provided in Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs, by Peter Cappelli, who argues that the reported skills gap is created largely by hiring practices. Many people have the competencies to learn new techniques if provided with work-related training. The Business Roundtable agrees, arguing that employers would find greater success by focusing on hiring competencies. Are the applicants organized? Self-motivated? Punctual? Do they present a strong work ethic?

The Business Roundtable, in a 2009 survey of employers, identified concerns about certain technical and job-related skills, but "the most serious gaps are believed to be ‘soft skills,’ such as work ethic, accountability and self-motivation." Certainly employers predicted that they would need workers to have improved, up-to-date technical skills, but those people are comparatively easy to find. Employees can be trained, and new hires with the education in that specified area can be sought.

Far more distressing was the fact that 49 percent of employers found a moderate or large gap between employee skill level and performance level: 26 percent identified a moderate gap (level 4 on a scale of 1 to 7), and 23 percent found a large gap (levels 5 to 7).

The same study also concluded that the gap between the skill and performance levels of 51 percent of employees has an impact on company productivity, meaning that employees with performance issues are affecting the bottom line. No skills deficit was associated with specialized IT, management, administrative, or mechanical work. People know how to do jobs; they just don’t act like it. The skills that were not being met included personal accountability for work, self-motivation, strong work ethic, punctuality, time management, professionalism, and adaptability.

Those are not skills that a business can expect to train and instill in its workers; hiring people who already have them is cheaper and easier.

Before pursuing my Ph.D. and becoming a college professor, I worked in medical publishing and was responsible for hiring those in my division. I saw this issue regularly. The people who succeeded were those who had a strong work ethic, produced work on time, adapted to changes, and suggested new ideas with a plan for making them work. They received bonuses, promotions, raises, and work opportunities that others did not.

The rest stayed in the same positions for years, were replaced, or even fired. Their haphazard morning-arrival times, uncertain work delivery, and indifference to participating in the needs of the company made them expendable. You might get a second chance, but a third and a fourth, and a deadline extension and then another? No.

We do our students a disservice when we provide them with extensions, lax lateness policies, and extra-credit opportunities. They could learn those values at home, in community service, or other groups, but colleges really do most closely replicate some of the demands of a life at work. Since 65 percent of employers expect to hire employees with an associate degree or higher, professors are at the forefront of those who can inculcate these soft skills.

Most students today have been raised in an environment of endless second chances, so my policies surprise them — and many don’t like me for it. Throughout the semester, I have to explain to the class and to individuals why my rules are actually part of the training that college provides to help them in their eventual careers. My introduction-to-literature class might seem to have nothing to do with their engineering, accounting, or social-work degrees, but the values that I am enforcing have everything to do with their ability to be hired, their chances of being promoted, and their future fiscal success.

Students can show up late, but they learn that it matters. If students forget that an assignment is due, they learn how to use their handy-dandy smartphone to set calendar and other reminders about scheduled work. When they return after missing a class without the completed assignment, they learn that the world does not stop with their absence but continues to have demands, even expectations.

They learn to use their peers as support toward ensuring that they are aware of obligations, just as colleagues at work help one another. As many people have said before me, there is no extra credit in life. If an employee does not submit work on time, she can expect to be penalized. In the rising world of free agents, a freelancer who doesn’t deliver can expect never to be hired again.

It’s terrifying. I know that. I try to support my students. I introduce them to online tools. I am sympathetic to the challenges of multiple-demand systems, and I reassure them that managing this chaos is a part of being an adult. Very few students really hate me by the end of the semester. Many express appreciation for the clarity of my rules, because they always know where they stand. Last semester a business student even thanked me for forcing him to adopt a more regimented attitude toward his schoolwork.

Work ethic, punctuality, and time management should hardly be shocking expectations of a college student. Isn’t it a problem that too often we don’t demand those skills of them?

Charlotte Kent is a visiting assistant professor of English at Mercy College, in New York.