(September 2018) In our last column we discussed the current workforce gap and the fact that Alabama is suffering from a severe lack of well-trained workers in most of the skilled labor occupations.  For years, students have been funneled into the four-year college system and away from the skilled trades.  Now, we are facing a severe shortage in those trades, and have a real need to add 500,000 newly skilled workers to the Alabama workforce by the year 2025.

One of the responsibilities of the East AlabamaWorks Regional Workforce Council is to stay in constant contact with business and industry leaders through personal meetings, industry sector meetings, and needs assessment surveys. As we identify the needs expressed by business and industry, we then pass that information along to government leaders, community leaders, training providers, and the community in general.  We all are singing the same song, but it is up to the regional workforce council to make sure we are all on the same page and using the same songbook!

Industry leaders communicate with us every day about the number of jobs they desperately need to fill, they tell us the kind of education and training that job seekers need to gain employment in their facility, and they tell us why so many people who apply for jobs are being turned away even though the need for employees is great.  The one thing we hear the most about lately is the term “Soft Skills” or “Employability Skills”.

In older generations the so-called “soft” skills are just naturally-occurring, common-sense skills that no one had to learn because they were ingrained in our culture and were a normal extension of the way we were raised by our parents; a lifestyle that was reinforced when we went to school.

In every meeting we conduct, soft skills come up as one of the leading problems facing industry today. This is not just an East Alabama problem, but a problem that extends throughout the state and even throughout the nation. Businesses need employees who will A) Show up on time. B) Show up every day. C) Get along with coworkers. D) Follow basic instructions and take direction from their supervisor. E) Stay off of their cell phone during work hours. F) Pass a drug test.

A common lament is “Nobody has a work ethic or wants to work hard anymore.” One local industry representative who recently had twenty openings to fill, said that he would have to hire seventy-five people in order to get those twenty workers who would be consistent, reliable full-time employees. He shared that a large portion of his hires just don’t show up again after the first day of job orientation. Others simply quit before they even complete the short training program. Another hiring manager says that he has to plan for a twenty percent absentee rate – for every shift. Now, that includes vacations and sick days, but also includes employees who “just don’t show up”.

Conflict resolution also appears to be a social skill that is lacking in today’s workforce – just the simple ability to get along with others. Even if you can’t always get along, to at least tolerate each other. Once you have a job, you may spend more time with your coworkers than with your family. The ability to communicate and get along with the person who shares a cubicle, or stands beside you for eight hours or more, is paramount in today’s work environment. You can’t hide behind an internet screen name or just text a smiley-face emoji when you are both busy working with your hands.  We have to put away the devices and re-learn how to communicate with others on a personal level.

For some it comes as a surprise, and for others it doesn’t, but the number one soft skills problem we hear about on a daily basis is the inability to pass a drug test. Differing drug laws around the country may be a contributing factor to this problem. Take a vacation to Colorado, take part in a legal activity while there, and then get disqualified from a possible job when you get home because you failed the drug test. Drug laws aside, employers cannot take the chance of an employee being under the influence while on the job. So, the consistent message here remains “Stay Off Of Drugs” if you want a meaningful, family-supporting career that you can be proud of.

If you, or someone you know, has limited work experience and a need for pre-employment soft skills training, the Alabama Department of Commerce and AIDT (Alabama Industrial Development Training) have developed a curriculum called Ready to Work.  Workers who complete the free Ready to Work program receive an Alabama Certified Worker Certificate issued by AIDT and a National Career Readiness Certificate issued by ACT. Alabama’s Ready to Work program is operated by the Alabama Community College System and is also being rolled out in some high schools around the state.  To learn more about Ready to Work, contact your nearest community college or visit AlabamaReadyToWork.org.