Great companies know that quality people are the drivers of success in business. What are the attributes that make someone a great employee? It clearly begins with hard skills, those industry specific competencies that qualify an employee to be productive in a given industry or sector– accountants who know credits and debits, welders who can build ships using the most sophisticated tools, and nurses who can manage difficult scenarios and interventions. These skills represent that minimum bar that an employee must meet to enter a new profession or to be hired by a new employer.
Beyond these fundamental qualifications, employers are most passionate about wanting new employees who have outstanding “soft skills.” These skills might be described as “soft,” but they are very tangible. These are higher order skills that position employees for both initial hiring and advancement within a company. Employers report that there is a significant skills gap in the current workforce when considering these soft skills. They report having a difficult time finding qualified employees who will also be great teammates and colleagues. What employers are looking for are potential colleagues who can solve problems; work independently as well as in teams; communicate well, and specifically write well; maintain a positive outlook; and present themselves professionally.
Virtually every leader, employer, and citizen in the state agrees that “workforce development” is something that is essential to Maine’s competitive future. While we have this broad-based agreement in the principle of developing a workforce there is much ambiguity in defining what that means in practice. Arguably, part of the picture is economic forecasting and modeling – looking into a crystal ball and predicting what positions will be needed in the future. An economist might see an aging population in the state and determine that the nursing profession will experience dramatic growth. Employers might report that there is tremendous shortage of information technology experts. The underlying emphasis of these observations is typically on having a workforce that has very industry specific skills and building an education infrastructure to train people for jobs of the future. Again, the emphasis tends to be on the “hard skills” – technical competence to do a very specific job. Equal attention needs to be paid to developing those soft skills that are equally valued by employers. The most important benefit of developing the soft skills is that they apply nearly universally across all industries. A workforce with these attributes attracts investment and is adaptive to new opportunities.
These skills can be developed through our colleges and universities. Most higher education institutions in Maine are bringing a new level of focus and action to preparing graduates for a career. Kaplan University has developed a system of assessing workplace readiness and has built a culture of consistent and honest feedback with its students. To this end, the Kaplan University faculty are proactively assessing all students on their workplace readiness in nine key areas every term, in every course. Faculty give their impression of each student on a four-point scale in attendance and reliability, communication skills, written communication effectiveness, professional presentation, level of engagement, independent thinking, ethical behavior, teamwork, problem-solving, and overall “coachability.”
In the real world a student might have 15 minutes in a job interview to make an impression on an employer. Kaplan is reframing each term as a ten-week job interview and giving students feedback on how they are perceived and the impression that they are leaving on others. This is terrific preparation for the competitive job market where applicants all possess the fundamental hard skills.
This approach is labor intensive and sparks formative conversations. Preparing a student for employment is not something that can be done in the few weeks before graduation. In reality it takes effort through all of the years of enrollment in a career-focused degree program and begins with open discussion of these goals at the start of college (and before). Through this cooperation of industry and higher education Maine will position itself apart from other states in having a truly developed workforce.
Dr. Christopher Quinn is the President of Kaplan University, Maine campuses.