January 2009 Issue Volume 37 Issue 1

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Sociologists in Research and Applied Settings

This occasional column focuses on the interesting career paths and achievements of sociologists whose primary work in sociology is not in the academy or whose “extracurricular” work outside academic settings is noteworthy for its societal or policy impact. These sociologists are engaged directly with the public, applying methods of science and their sociological expertise

Sociologist Explores Workforce Readiness of New Graduates

by Henry M. Silvert, The Conference Board


Henry M. Silvert

I work as a researcher and a statistician at The Conference Board, a not-for-profit organization, whose dual mission is to equip the world’s leading corporations with practical knowledge to help them improve their performance and help them better serve society. As its name implies, one of the things that The Conference Board does is to hold conferences. We hold conferences for company executives on issues of diversity, human resource, compensation, executive and management succession planning, mature worker issues, and much more. As the statistician, I supervise the analysis of conference evaluations for these events.

Our economic analysis and forecasting is the area that makes the news most often—especially in this current economy—and is designed to signal peaks and troughs in the business cycles of nine countries. We also publish a quarterly Consumer Internet Barometer, which surveys 10,000 households across the country and tracks who is doing what on the Internet. I conduct the number crunching for this publication. In addition, we conduct research around issues of global corporate responsibility, corporate director education, and human resources issues.

Business and Education

During the spring of 2006, The Conference Board—in partnership with the Corporate Voices for Working Families, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and the Society for Human Resource Management—conducted a study to examine the disconnect between employers’ expectations of the knowledge and skills of new job entrants and the skills these job entrants actually bring to the workplace. In a U.S. Business Council survey, more than half of the CEO respondents report that education and workforce preparedness is a very/most important policy issue. With the massive retirement of the baby boomers looming, we knew going into the study that the current U.S. workforce was aging. While the median age of the U.S. worker was 39 in 2000, it is estimated to be 41 by 2010. The 35- to 44-year-old cohort will shrink by 10 percent over the course of this decade, and this is the first time in 25 years that the youngest workforce (ages 16 to 25 years old) will grow faster than the overall workforce. We also knew that roughly half of the employees at the typical Fortune 500 company will be new by 2015.

Employers report that the top five "very important" applied and basic skills required for job success of new entrants with a high school diploma are professionalism/work ethic, teamwork, oral communication, ethics/social responsibility, and reading comprehension. The top five skills required for four-year college job entrants are oral communication, teamwork, professionalism/work ethic, written communications, and critical thinking/problem solving. Leadership was also considered a very important skill for the job success of four-year college graduates.

The Report Card

So, how do employers think that these recent job entrants fare? We developed a workforce readiness report card. For a skill to be placed on either the deficient or excellent side of the report card, more than half of the respondents had to report that the skill was very important and more than 20 percent had to report that their job entrants were either deficient or excellent in that skill. For the new job entrant with a high school diploma, none of the "very important" skills for their success appears on the excellent side of the report card. The new entrant with a four-year college diploma typically fares much better. Yet, written communications, writing in English, and leadership remain on the deficient side of the report card for this group. Creativity/innovation, teamwork, and oral communications barely make it onto the excellent side of the report card, with less than 25 percent of the respondents reporting that they are excellently prepared. An emerging "necessary" skill is knowledge of a foreign language, which is not surprising in this increasingly globalizing world. Our respondents also report that emerging content areas for new job entrants include "participation in community and government as an informed citizen" and "understanding economic issues and the role of business in the U.S. and the global community."

Who is responsible for the workforce readiness? Slightly more than three-quarters of the respondents claim that the responsibility rests with the K-12 schools and more than two-thirds report it is the responsibility of four-year colleges and universities. Less than 20 percent report that it is the responsibility of the hiring employer. Companies are taking steps to increase the likelihood that future entrants are workplace ready. Some companies are working with high schools to develop school-to-work curriculum. Others are providing their employees with online training and courses leading to associate and bachelor’s degrees. Still others are offering their staff specific training in business communications and leadership skills. In addition, companies are offering educators company tours and opening a dialogue on the skills that are most important.

As for the proper relation between educational institutions and the corporate community, I will leave that up to those who are wiser than I am. It seems to me, however, that these findings can help us to understand some of the educational difficulties of the United States and might even guide us to develop programs to remedy these perceived deficiencies. The Conference Board is currently conducting a study to determine how much companies are spending to make their employees workforce ready.

Sociology’s Role

In my professional experience, my sociological and other educational training has been handy in the work that I do here at the Board. In addition to this work, I have just published a report on company programs for their employees living with HIV/AIDS, which highlights the wealth of company programs and initiatives developed around the world and especially in sub-Saharan Africa. I am also working with a team on management succession planning where the concept of learning agility is prominent.

In addition to my work at The Conference Board, I am an adjunct professor at Marymount Manhattan College. Previously I was a Visiting Professor at the Colegio de Mexico teaching an undergraduate course on the politics of Latin American. I have also worked as a data analyst at the National Development and Research Institutes, Inc., on a project to lower the HIV infection rate of women who are sex partners of drug injection abusers on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. logo_small

The author can be reached at henry.silvert@conference-board.org.


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