The skills shortage confronting the United States economy goes beyond academic and hands-on occupational skills. For as long as there have been reports about the shortage of skilled workers, employers have been saying they need workers with "soft skills" such as communications and other interpersonal skills. A 2001 report by nonprofit Public/Private Ventures repeats the concern that "Students who develop hard skills alone may end up being just as hard to employ as those who learn no skills at all. Developing both social and technical abilities—in the same routine, with the same degree of emphasis and real-world concreteness—is the surest way to equip trainees for the demands of the workplace. . ."
Employability skills are foundation skills that apply across the board, no matter what the specific job may be. Examples include communications skills, teamwork skills, problem-solving skills and self-management skills. Knowing that one must get to work on time, having a back-up plan in case of family emergencies, handling irate customers and knowing when to call a supervisor are all employability skills. The need to define, measure and teach employability skills has become increasingly important. American business and industry are concerned by the lack of foundation skills in job applicants. The ability to assess employability skills has become a national priority, as reflected in federal government initiatives since 1998.
While schools and workplaces are the most likely venues to measure academic and technical skills, respectively, a variety of organizations have started measuring employability skills. It is possible to measure these skills through written or computer-based tests or through performance during a long-term project or in a contest simulation.
Everyone can benefit from learning or improving employability skills. Even jobs that were once thought to be solely technical are changing to require a wider range of employability skills. For example, at one time, auto service technicians spent most of their time working on cars or repairing technical problems. Because modern consumers are more sophisticated, ask more questions and need more information, auto service technicians are now spending more time in contact with customers. This requires communication skills to meet customers' needs and teamwork skills to work with co-workers, managers and suppliers. No matter what the occupational area, time management, communications and other employability skills are critical for professional success on the job and for corporate productivity in a globally competitive economy.
In fact, this ongoing priority is reflected at the federal level through several venues. Among the most important are the Workforce Investment Act and the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 1998, both of which emphasize the importance of developing and implementing core standards and measures of performance in the area of employability skills. This is a continuation of long-standing policy. Career and technical education legislation and programs have included instruction in employability skills since the beginning of CTE in the 20th century. Student organizations were included in federal and state law specifically for that purpose.
Recently released standards for the Manufacturing and Sales and Service sectors underscore the importance of employability skills. Under the auspices of the National Skills Standards Board (NSSB) established by Congress in 1994, hundreds of business and labor leaders produced and validated standards for employment and promotion in their industries. The NSSB fundamentals include both academic and employability skills. It's on that bedrock that hands-on technical skill training is based.
Similarly, the Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE) of the U.S. Department of Education reinforces the importance of measuring employability skills through the creation of "Career Clusters" for educational purposes. Each of the clusters of career titles consists of entry-level through professional-level occupations in an occupational area and academic and employability skills are among the core competencies.
SkillsUSA–vica sponsors a range of career preparation activities. As a Career and Technical Student Organization (CTSO), it was created as an applied method for teaching employability and leadership skills within trade and industrial education.
The core of the SkillsUSA experience for students is called The Program of Work carried out by local "chapters." Student officers, committees and chapter members undertake activities in professional development; community service; public relations; School-to-Work employment; SkillsUSA Championships; social activities and chapter fund raising. Each of these activity areas can be shaped by the instructor to meet instructional goals.
While "hard" occupational skills are honed through a process of competitions known as the SkillsUSA Championships, the "soft" skills of SkillsUSA students are developed through chapter activities and curricula, the Professional Development Program and the Total Quality Curriculum, that are incorporated into daily classroom lesson plans.
These programs achieve optimal effect only if the process is informed and supported by partnerships with business, industry and organized labor. Teachers and students need to understand the expectations of business for entry-level competencies. Shouldn't your business be spending time in the classroom with teachers and students?