The hard economic reality of today’s soft skills crisis

by Ryan Streeter on September 20, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

Nick Schulz is right on mark in today’s WSJ. Anyone who has a chance to talk to employers in multiple industries and varied geographies has heard this too:

Employers also mention a lack of elementary command of the English language. A survey in April of human-resources professionals conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management and the AARP compared the skills gap between older workers who were nearing retirement and younger workers coming into the labor pool. More than half of the organizations surveyed reported that simple grammar and spelling were the top “basic” skills among older workers that are not readily present among younger workers.

The SHRM/AARP survey also found that “professionalism” or “work ethic” is the top “applied” skill that younger workers lack. This finding is bolstered by the Empire Manufacturing Survey for April, published by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. It said that manufacturers were finding it harder to find punctual, reliable workers today than in 2007, “an interesting result given that New York State’s unemployment rate was more than 4 percentage points lower in early 2007 than in early 2012.

The skills shortage is not just an absence of workers who can write computer code, operate complex graphics software or manipulate cultures in a biotech lab—as real as that scarcity is. Many people lack what the writer R.R. Reno has called “forms of social discipline” that are indispensable components of a person’s human capital and that are needed for economic success.

Some people would object to me calling this a crisis. But given how common this complaint has become, it’s sure starting to feel like a crisis. While there are multiple explanations for why work rates have been falling for adult men in America, this is certainly one of them, even if we find it uncomfortable to talk about.

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