Poorly Educated Work Force Threatens Corporate America

As high technology and worldwide competition increasingly complicate today's business environment, corporate America looks to keep pace with a work force that can meet the challenge ahead.

But as we move toward the year 2000, working within the framework of an often difficult and always changing economic world, we in industry face a seemingly fundamental yet enormous task: We must find prepared individuals ready to meet our staffing needs.

In today's society, achieving that objective is complicated at best. As the workplace becomes more sophisticated, the pool of candidates able to work within it continues to diminish.

Trouble with Simple Tasks

In that regard, illiteracy is proving the bane of corporate America. In an era of fast-paced and unprecedented challenge for American business, more and more people entering the work force lack the skills to accomplish even low-level tasks.

According to recent studies, up to 10% of American workers are either functionally or marginally illiterate. The trend seems likely to continue, as almost a quarter of those now entering high school will fail to complete it, and those who do will be less literate than graduates of a decade ago, according to current testing.

Changing work force demographics will exacerbate the problem. It's estimated that women will make up two-thirds of all job entrants between now and the year 2000. Because the clerical positions they are likely to fill typically require good literacy skills, the effects of a poor education will be magnified in the coming years, especially throughout the service industry.

Minority Ranks Grow

In the next 10 years, blacks, Hispanics, and the new immigrants will make up 43% of the nation's new job entrants.

Often the victims of underfunded and understaffed urban school systems, these groups typically score lower than their more privileged counterparts on standardized tests like the SATs.

Sadly, their test scores continue to erode, and we have seen their college enrollment drop by 3% in recent years.

Other factors tarnish the outlook of the future work force. While a high school diploma or a GED certificate is often looked on as proof of literacy by employers, a survey by the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that many high school graduates suffer from literacy problems.

For example, of the high school graduates surveyed, only 56% could read at the 11th-grade level. In addition, according to survey results, young people across the board, both high school graduates and those with varying degrees of education below, have difficulty finding solutions to everyday situations.

Four out of five had difficulty reading a bus schedule; two-thirds could not follow map directions; nearly three-quarters could not understand a long feature story in a newspaper; 28% were unable to write a letter complaining of an incorrect billing; and one out of five could not locate gross pay on a weekly pay stub.

Certainly, it's easy to see how such inabilities hinder the productivity and cost effectiveness of the American work force.

Typical Problems

Some classic examples: Clerks send out instructions that contain typos and factual errors, which later must be recalled and corrected; accounting clerks bill customers incorrectly, losing thousands of dollars in receivables for a firm; production workers measure raw materials inaccurately, resulting in costly waste. The list goes on and on, even beyond the dollars-and-cents issues.

Illiteracy can have an effect on even the physical well-being of the work force - OSHA has found a direct correlation between illiteracy and workplace accidents.

Where are literacy problems most likely to surface? A survey of human resources executives most found deficiencies in the following areas: reading and interpretation, basic mathematics, written communication, oral communication, computer capability, and work readiness.

College Grads Also Lag

Unfortunately, in the real world, even those educated beyond the high school level often exhibit failings in some of these areas.

A brief survey of my colleagues' experiences tells me that college graduates, and even those with a newly minted master's degree, often come to the workplace not fully prepared with the necessary communications skills.

While most college-educated newcomers arrive fairly adept at "number crunching," many are sorely in need of improved written communication techniques, said one division head.

Recent grads often find difficulty explaining in written form the jargon, acronyms, and technical terms they use on the job. In training students for the working world, colleges and universities appear to rank writing skills low on the list of essentials.

Details Overlooked

College-educated entrants sometimes lack the ability to deal with detail, prompting a chief financial officer to suggest that educators restore a "back to basics" mentality in their curricula. Newcomers don't understand the importance of being specific, she remarked.

This lack of accuracy indicates that college professors allow students to carelessly smooth over details. As we know, there's no room for such liberties in the working world. Everything has to be absolutely correct.

Work readiness is another area of concern in bringing in a recent college graduate. University programs sometimes fail to convey what students should expect when they reach the workplace.

Politics Impair Productivity

Office situations often come as a surprise as newcomers attempt to make their way through political channels. Their frustration leads to a lack of productivity in handling assignments they, in fact, intellectually prepared to take on.

To remedy this situation, a marketing vice president suggests that colleges require more teamwork in their programs.

Team assignments mirror workplace situations as students are forced to work with others to accomplish a task. Case study analyses of real work situations and intership programs with various organizations also serve to bridge the gap.

Corporations often take part in this workplace orientation process. At Chemical, well-screened, promising college graduates are recruited for the management training program, which helps ease their way from the classroom to the job through a combination of course work and on-the-job learning.

Value of Experience

But experience makes the real difference, according to a college recruitment manager in New York. She cited the recent MBAs who come on board. Not only do the MBAs bring the tools of the classroom to the job, but in most cases they also bring several years of business experience.

This additional background enables them to make immediate contributions as they join the bank politically astute and fully prepared to handle their jobs.

However, no amount of education or experience will prepare budding executives for the literacy problems they are bound to face when they manage the future work force.

Just as colleges and universities must work hand in hand with industry to prepare upcoming leaders, we in corporate America must set a game plan to work with an intellectually deteriorating work force.

Few Signs of Promise

Such strategies can be developed none too soon. Righ now, many candidates seeking entry-level employment show few indications that they will be successful in the workplace.

For example, those interviewing for clerical and teller positions in our New York City office many times show little promise. In fact, the experience of applying for a job seems to challenge them.

One of our recruitment managers tells me that entry-level candidates, many of whom are recent high school graduates, do not interview well.

They have trouble completing application, have no idea how to dress, and don't know the first thing about selling themselves in an interview. Asking them to explain the courses they took in school is like pulling teeth. Only 75% of them pass a very basic screening test that evaluates their verbal and mathematic skills.

Companies Forced to Act

The problem won't go away by itself, and Chemical, like other concerned corporations, has implemented programs that will serve to bolster high school student's preparedness for the work force. The activities are more than just a public service; they are an investment in the future of the bank and in business in general.

One example is Chemical's sponsorship of the Join-A-School Program, which links Chemical with George Washington High School in Washington Heights.

Through the Join-A-School Program, Chemical helps George Washington students prepare for the work world in a number of ways, including through the expertise of employees involved in mentoring programs and projects such as Junior Achievement.

Grooming Future Employees

A career ladder program grooms George Washington students for guaranteed jobs with Chemical after graduation. These students receive special instruction in math and business communication during their junior year, and work in the bank the following summer. As seniors, they take on positions as co-op students with Chemical.

Join-A-School also means employment for approximately 45 George Washington students each summer and throughout the school year.

In addition, among other efforts, Chemical provides grants which extend educational opportunities for George Washington's teachers and scholarship recognition for student academic achievement.

The Join-A-School program provides participating George Washington students with a number of business world skills.

Sponsorship of Debates

Another program, Chemical's Lincoln-Douglas Debates, gives New York City public school students the opportunity to develop oral communication skills, also essential for a successful career.

Begun during the 1983-84 school year, the Lincoln-Douglas Debates program has evolved into a major annual event.

More than 70 schools participate each year, with monetary awards going to members of the winning team. Employees volunteer their time as judges, timekeepers, and moderators throughout 60 rounds that lead up to the debate finals in May.

The debates are much more than a philanthropic effort for Chemical. Through the program, a growing number of high school students have become interested in honing their oral communication abilities, hence a resurgence in debate clubs in the schools.

The program serves to combat the lack of literacy issues for those who participate. Through their preparation, participants develop analytical and critical thinking skills, attributes they will carry into the work force.

As the literacy issue continues as a growing concern, trade groups supporting various industries look for solutions as well.

For example, Chemical Bank New Jersey participates with other Garden State banks in the American Bankers Association's Personal Economics Program, or PEP.

Through PEP, bankers take on the role of educator in high school classrooms throughout the state. Using a series of video-tapes, bank representatives introduce students to banking careers, in addition to basic life situations, such as using credit wisely or opening a checking account.

The Garden State chapter of the American Institute of Banking offers a number of courses to erase deficiencies among employees at its member institutions.

These include such titles as Functional Mathematics for Bankers, English, Business Communications, Basic Business Writing Skills, and How to Improve Your Reading and Writing Skills.

The Garden State American Institute of Banking offers various one-and two-day seminars to increase employee skill levels as well. These include Business English Basics, Effective Presentations, Effective Writing for Bankers, Reading and Writing Skills for the Foreign Born/Educated Bankers, and Report Writing.

Foreign-Born Employees

The American Institute of Banking is particularly aware of the number of foreign-born employees entering the workplace, and it is developing a number of remedial courses and seminars to assist them.

While these are ongoing projects for the Garden State American Institute of Banking, the chapter also is involved in a pre-employment program in Newark that touches on the very heart of the literacy problem.

The program, which utilizes federal funding, teaches banking office skills to 20 individuals approved through the Mayor's Office of Employment and Training and the American Institute of Banking.

The 12-week, 360-hour program takes students through a number of basic courses, including Basic English, Basic Math, Computer Skills, Job Readiness Skills, and an Overview of Banking. Students completing the program will be placed in a job at an member institution of the American Institute of Banking.

The program tackles the problem of employment for people raised in an urban environment. According to the program manager, all participants, ages 17 through 39, hold a high school diploma yet lack the most basic skills.

How to Take a Message

Upon entering the program, students had difficulty with such simple tasks as relaying a phone message in writing or completing arithmetic at the grade school level.

Job readiness posed another major concern in designing the program. At its onset, students had no appreciation of what the workplace demands.

They even had problems understanding such concepts as using a checking account or receiving pay or company benefits. Even among the best trainees, the work ethic was lacking.

As work force literacy continues to deteriorate, such pre-employment programs will become increasingly necessary as we move ahead.

In many institutions, we no longer have the luxury of finding the right person with the right experience for the job, but instead we must look for individuals with basic skills whom we can mold to fill our positions.

And as the pool of qualified workers becomes smaller, we must find a way to provide more individuals with these basic skills. The New York City chapter of the American Institute of Banking has taken on this challenge.

Commitment to Hire

New York's American Institute of Banking has found success with its Job Power program, funded by the city, state, and particular banks, including Chemical. Through Job Power, employment candidates who marginally fail bank employment exams are given another opportunity to prove themselves by completing courses in business math, documentation literacy, and computer skills during a five-week session.

Participants are economically disadvantaged, and have never had access to the system. Sponsoring banks commit to hire them upon completion of the program.

The program appears to be working. Of 89 people enrolled in the first three sessions, 86 graduated and were hired by the sponsoring banks. To date, the program boasts a 73% retention rate for those hired - a figure high above industry standards.

Early next year, the New York American Institute of Banking will take a step beyond its Job Power program when it introduces "Career Success."

This program, also funded by city, state, and participating banks, will focus on how well the trained employees are making their way through the workplace with a look toward possible career paths and promotions. The New York American Institute of Banking is working with member banks now in developing the Career Success program.

Improving Staff Performance

While these programs emphasize an external focus, an American Institute of Banking pilot program with Chase Manhattan will help strengthen the literacy skills of of employees already working at the bank.

The program, developed in cooperation with Simon & Schuster and the American Bankers Association, will address remedial deficiences and performance problems in the workplace.

As the work force changes, industry will come to rely more often on such training programs. In fact, businesses outside of banking have already contacted the American Institute of Banking to determine how the Career Success program would transfer to their fields.

To reiterate, as industry grows more aware of the literacy issue, the problem becomes an increasingly complicated one that demands an immediate solution. But we know the answer will be with us for the long term.

A serious challenge certainly looms. For the good of our industries, for the good of corporate America, in fact, for the well-being of the society in general, it is vital that we harness our energies to look for solutions as we take the next step toward a fast-paced and highly competitive future.

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