U.Va. Researchers Find That Virginia Employers Want Basic Work Skills

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Rebecca Arrington:

November 2, 2010 — Since the mid-1980s, researchers at the University of Virginia's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service have been in conversation with Virginia employers about the skills and abilities they seek in entry-level workers. The latest report from this research, released Nov. 1, finds:

•    Employers of all types in Virginia and across the nation want workers with basic skills, including speaking and listening; professional ethics; reading and writing; and a positive work ethic;
•    In Virginia, these skills are more likely to be rated as essential than technology skills;
•    Over 20 years, the importance of these skills to Virginia employers has not changed. In fact, they may be more important now than before; and,
•    Employers want these skills in students coming to work from high school, from community colleges or from four-year colleges.

"Historically, many youth have gained workplace skills by working in part-time or summer jobs," said Cooper Center Outreach Director Meredith Gunter, co-author of the report. "This, unfortunately, is less the case today for a variety of reasons including demanding school, extracurricular and summer schedules; sluggishness in the employment sector; and younger workers being squeezed out of work opportunities by those with more experience.

"While school activities such as student organizations and sports, and community activities, including volunteer work, give students opportunities to develop skills related to work, they do not expose young people to the realities of the workplace and the expectations of employers."

The research finds that employers expect families and communities to help students gain these essential skills, but they also look to the schools to be involved. Cooper Center Research Associate Achsah Carrier, the other co-author of the report and also of prior research on this topic in 1997, said, "These workplace skills include attitudes and behaviors often learned from family and prior work experience, but they can also be cultivated in well-ordered school environments and through curriculum designed to address them, such as the curriculum priorities in career and technical education courses in Virginia's schools."

In 1997 Cooper Center researchers reported results from interviews across Virginia with more than 500 employers representing 54 occupations. That research resulted in the development of a list of essential workplace readiness skills for Virginia. The report released today reflects comments from more than 300 employers from a range of industrial sectors.

According to Carrier, "These findings should be informative for the Governor's Workforce Council, Workforce Investment Boards, Departments of Social Services, the Virginia Employment Commission and employment centers, workforce development professionals and career coaches, as well as teachers, parents and employers across Virginia."

The report concludes with a series of recommendations for enhancing workplace readiness instruction in schools, including a call for a more robust and sustained involvement of Virginia employers.

The report, "Critical Workplace Skills for Virginia's Economic Vitality", is the latest edition of Numbers Count, a regular publication that analyzes different aspects of Virginia demographics and discusses topics of current interest.

— By Rebecca Arrington