Employers weigh in on the need for soft skills training



June 9, 2017 - 12:00 AM

Allen Community College is leading the way with the development of a soft skills program aimed at a workforce that, according to local employers, falls short of necessary training.
The 24-credit certificate, still in its infancy, will not be geared toward students earning a degree.
“College education is generally thought to embed these skills into the curriculum,” said Jon Marshall, vice president of academic affairs.
Instead, the program will be designed to complement the hard skills workers already possess, and help prepare those who are searching for employment. The definition of soft skills differs in varying parts of the workforce based on the type of industry.
“But in general what folks are talking about is effective written and oral communication,” Marshall said. “Public speaking or interpersonal communications is often part of that training,” in addition to computer literacy and “some type of leadership or an introduction-to-business course.”
According to Marshall, area businesses confirmed the need training in soft skills.
“Many employers will tell us that folks may be trained well in a certain skill, but to move up into supervisory positions the requirement of communication skills or some sort of computer literacy is needed,” Marshall said.
The college’s tentative plan is to offer the program with “the full weight of a meaningful certificate” by next year. Currently no certificate structure for soft skills exists in Kansas. ACC is taking the lead and working with the Kansas Board of Regents to define that structure.
“We’re excited to explore this,” Marshall said. “We think it’s a very good idea.”
Terri Piazza, an ACC communications instructor, will lead the effort.
 Human resource workers from B&W Trailer Hitches, Sonic Equipment Company and Russell Stover Chocolates confirmed the need for such training, however, in all three cases it was thought that soft skills begin long before someone’s computer skills, for example, are evaluated. While communication skills hovered at the top of their lists, the HR directors said many could not adequately fill out job application forms or know how to dress for a job interview, tasks all of them considered to be soft skills.
B&W Trailer Hitches
HR Manager Juliana Stevenson, Clerk Shannon Sigg, and Safety Manager Dan Willis work as a team to recruit new employees. They feel strongly about the need to educate young people regarding the expectations of potential employers. Soft skills inadequacies are typically divided by generation, they said. Members of the baby boomer generation are generally better equipped  than millennials, who tend to lack the confidence to present themselves positively during interviews. Failure to introduce themselves, a lack of direct eye contact and neglecting to put their cell phones away are shortcomings that younger applicants often demonstrate. Sigg said she believes the gap in communication skills can be blamed in part on technology.
“A lot of (the younger applicants) don’t know how to sit down and have a conversation with another live person,” she said.
The lack of confidence is evident once they are hired as well. The inability to make decisions without asking for continual guidance is a soft skill that Stevenson said she sees too often.
Generation X’ers remain divided, she said. The closer in age they are to baby boomers the better equipped they are. 
B&W has started giving tours to high school and technical college students. An introduction to the company is given along with tips on how to land a job.
“We have noticed that (soft skills) are not necessarily learned or taught in any high school studies,” Stevenson said. “It is going to take all of us to grow this young workforce.”
Waiting until the high school years to introduce soft skills may be too late, though. All three team members agreed that preparation should begin during the middle school years.  
“We have to understand that parental involvement has to be there from the start,” Stevenson said. “You have to start preparing your child for the workforce when they are 9, 10, 11 to get them to where they are going to need to be. ”
Failing to fill out an application in its entirety and not providing contact information for references are surefire ways to get overlooked.
“People don’t take the time to learn how to spell anymore or they shorten everything,” Sigg said. “You can definitely see it in the applications.”
Suits and ties are not the expected attire for an interview at the manufacturing plant, however personal hygiene is a prevalent non-generational problem. Absenteeism and tardiness are also considered to be a lack of soft skills.
“People need to understand that soft skills are the way everything in life is approached,” Stevenson said. “It’s OK to be nervous during an interview, but somebody who slouches down in their chair or sits back and rocks or chews gums, those are soft skills that need to be taught somewhere.”
Checking social media postings are part of the applicant-screening process. Negative, crude or discriminatory comments will be considered a deficit of soft skills.
“It goes back to your decision-making abilities,” Stevenson said. “We need to get back to being respectful.”
The company provides training in areas like communication to employees who are looking to advance to lead positions, but all three human resource workers agreed that applicants with a soft skills certificate would be highly regarded.
 “They are trying to make themselves better,” Willis said “That is what we want.”
Sonic Equipment Company
Angel Kaufman, HR officer, said ACC conducted soft skills training at the cinema installation company after they developed a new call center. 
“Our need here was verbal soft skills, an over-the-phone type thing,” she said. “Some of the phone etiquette skills were being missed.”
Written communication skills are also essential to a company that utilizes email as a primary way to correspond with customers.
Similar to B&W, Kaufman said she sees a lack of soft skills when it comes to filling out applications.
“If you take the time then, we are going to take the time to look at it,” she said.
Failure to sign an application is seen as an inability to follow through on assignments.
Poor hygiene at interviews is not an uncommon problem and many times applicants show up late. Some prospective employees dress in shorts, jeans, T-shirts or flip-flops, none of which are acceptable. Kaufman said offering explanations for why someone did not have time to change before the scheduled appointment is a soft skill.
“You can let the interviewer know ahead of time that you are going to be coming straight from work,” she said.
Kaufman, like the B&W crew, said there are deficits in soft skills that are defined by generation. She finds that the millennial generation has a tendency to be unable to prioritize and to stay on task. Taking good notes is also an issue.
“I was taught that in school,” she said.
Soft skills lessons were also taught at home. Her mother always encouraged her to “dress for success.”
Kaufman’s theory for why young people are so ill-equipped is because of a breakdown in family structure where face-to-face interaction has been lost.
“People need that communication, that sit-down-at-dinner with no cell phones involved,” she said. “A lot of people don’t do that anymore.”
Often it is difficult to inspire interviewees to answer questions with more than a “yes” or “no.”
A soft skills certificate would be impressive, but only in conjunction with an application that was neat and filled out completely, Kaufman said.
Russell Stover Chocolates
Human Resources Manager Jessica Collier relocated from Fort Scott in August. She said soft-skills abilities in Allen County are consistent with what she experienced in Bourbon County.
“Southeast Kansas has a lot of the same demographics across the board,” she said.
Communication, interviewing skills, absenteeism and tardiness and the lack of leadership skills top the list of problem areas. Shorts and flip-flops along with “yes” and “no” answers are commonplace.The inability to elaborate affects written communication skills as well. She also said answers on applications are too short and resumes are seldom attached. Often a lack of professional social skills are interpreted as disrespectful.
Russell Stover offers leadership training for supervisors.
A soft skills certificate would be beneficial to the community, Collier said.  
“Soft skills are great for everybody to learn how to improve in their profession,” she said.

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