Frontline makeover

The registers at a discount department store in suburban Washington do more than just ring up sales: They flash a block-letter message that reminds the cashiers to "say hello" and "say thank you" to customers.

The electronic prompt - a five-year-old software function that manufacturer NCR now offers on "a great majority" of the registers it sells to retail stores - is one clear sign that businesses are still struggling with a shortage of workers with so-called "soft skills."

An increasing number of firms have begun reporting difficulties finding employees capable of providing friendly service, working well in teams, showing up on time, and using standard English.

It's not limited to those in the service industry. Manufacturers reported the "top deficiency" among hourly workers and applicants for hourly jobs to be a "lack of basic employability skills," such as timeliness, attendance, and a work ethic, in a survey by the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington.

"That was overwhelmingly the answer," says Jill Golden, director of the association's Center for Workforce Success, which asked its 14,000 members to identify shortcomings in the workforce and their impacts on business.

Two-thirds of respondents said the lack of workers' soft skills hurt their ability to maintain production levels and meet customer demand.

"A lot of employers will say 'Just give us somebody who will come to work and will work hard, and we'll train them in what to do,' " Ms. Golden notes.

This certainly is the case in the hospital business, says William Myhare, vice president of human resources at Trinitas Hospital in Elizabeth, N.J.

"The technical skills ... it's very easy to train and see if someone can master them or not," Mr. Myhare says. "In an industry such as ours, which is people-intensive, soft skills are absolutely the No. 1 issue. You've got to have them coming [in]."

But Myhare notes that he has witnessed a decline in these skills over the years - even at the all-important job interview.

"It's not uncommon for someone, a young person, to walk in with sneakers without laces and ripped clothing," he says. "What I knew in the business 15 years ago, and what I see today ... there is a marked difference."

New testing, and a call for clarity

To address this trend, the urban hospital recently implemented an interview-screening process that evaluates, through behavioral testing designed by Gallup, applicants' abilities to be team players and build relationships at work, among other skills. (For a look at the latest trends in testing, see page 19.)

The tool has already proved its worth, Myhare adds. Hospital executives are saying, "You've got a better quality of employee coming through," he notes. "They've got the people skills."

The responsibility for teaching such skills rests at home and in schools, Myhare believes. But he also stresses that employers must set clear standards of behavior and codes of conduct.

In fact, employers generally must do a better job of "making visible" the often hidden notions of what is acceptable and unacceptable in the workplace, one job trainer notes.

This is crucial as more immigrants and others with limited work experience enter the workforce, says Maia Chisholm, director of the ACHIEVE office skills training program at Cabrillo Community College in Watsonville, Calif.

Soft skills, she notes, are "cultural constructs" that mean different things to different people.

"What we have is a disparity between what the workplace culture is, which is mostly European-American white male, and the students who are coming in and are the new workers, who are multiethnic and multicultural," Ms. Chisholm says.

Instruction in 'life skills'

The ACHIEVE program helps adult students understand expectations at work. "They can make a choice and say, 'OK, I'll fit into those norms and I'll live with that.' Or they can say, 'No, that's not for me,' and make another choice."

Others hope to instill soft skills in young people before they land their first jobs. Students in the Kent, Wash., school district, for example, receive "employability and life skills" grades in every class on such virtues as cooperation and commitment to quality.

Now in its second year, the assessment stemmed from a 1996 survey of area businesses that asked how well prepared Kent graduates were for the workplace.

"The answer was 'not very well,' " says Sandra Schwartz, director of career technical education in the school district. "Usually, the one thing that got them fired was not that they didn't have the math skills, but that they didn't show up on time or were not working well with others."

Training that matches reality

The challenge of teaching soft skills is compounded by the changing mores of the workplace.

In some job-training programs, for example, participants are expected to show up in suits and ties.

"Then they move into the workplace, often into very good jobs that they're happy to have, and no one has worn a tie in five years," says Tony Proscio, an independent researcher who has studied the issue.

People today are not necessarily worse at soft skills than they used to be, despite a "looseness of the 1960s and 1990s generations that conspire to make all of us a little more slovenly," he says.

It's just that those who lack such soft skills can no longer be ignored, says Mr. Proscio, who wrote the recent report, "Hard Work on Soft Skills: Creating a 'Culture of Work' in Workforce Development," for Public/Private Ventures, a Philadelphia-based think tank that focuses on youth issues.

"In the late 1990s, employers weren't able to pass them over anymore, because there simply wasn't anyone left," he says. "It became a national crisis." With the economy poised to recover, the "problem will come back," Proscio says.

Still, greater job competition should make having such skills even more important for job applicants.

A deep-seated problem

Will job-seekers get the message, some observers ask, or has the laxness gone too deep?

April, a 20-something resident of Alexandria, Va., has been on welfare for the past two years. Hoping to land a clerical or receptionist job, she is brushing up her employability skills at the Alexandria Job Link employment program.

In a classroom covered with positive-message posters - including one that reminds students of the need for clean hair and conservative nails - April says she is gaining the confidence needed "to go out and find something."

April's résumé touts her soft-skills qualifications, including "pleasant telephone manners" and "good customer-service skills."

But she is candid about what she is not good at: getting going in the morning.

"What I don't like is getting here at 9 a.m.," she says. "If I look for a job, it will have to start after 9."

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