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February 24, 2013

Closing the Skills Gap: Career counselors: Employable people are well-rounded

TERRE HAUTE — As the current day buzzword of “skills gap” makes its way into the economic dialog of Indiana, professional career counselors are emphasizing that being a well-rounded individual is a big part of what makes a person more employable.

Employers are looking at both hard skills — technical or specialized knowledge — as well as soft skills such as effective verbal and written communication and problem-solving. Just because a person knows how to do the specific task wanted by the employer does not mean that person is the best one for the job.

Steve Langerud, director of career development at DePauw University, works with employers around the nation as a career and workplace expert, and he said that employers look at three things.

n Can a person do the job? Does the candidate have the basic education, intelligence and the ability to learn?

n Will the person do the job? Is the person dependable, and will he or she show up on time ready to work?

n And, will the person embarrass the company? Is this a person of good character who is involved in the community and will be a good representative of the company? Or will the person behave in a way that will be an embarrassment to the employer?

Nationally, the top skills that employers look for are verbal communication, team players, and the abilities to problem solve, organize priorities, gather information and analyze data. Then come the technical pieces of the job.

“So, you go through the soft skills before you get to the technical skills,” he said.

He said that while there may be some validity to an employer’s complaint of a skills gap on the technical side, employers also concerned about the cost effectiveness of training new hires, who might decide to move to another employer with their new skills and knowledge.

“Employers invest money in time and lost productivity while someone is being trained, so there truly is a cost investment in training,” he said.

At the same time, America has a learning economy that requires flexible thinking. Some products that were essential to consumers 10 years ago are no longer needed, while products that will be in demand in five years have not even been thought of today.

Being nimble and effective is critical for not only employers, but employees, Langerud said. Having a narrow career focus with few skills does not prepare a person for a long-term workplace.

“It is short-sighted to prep for that one special thing you want to do,” he said.

Soft skills such as social etiquette and dressing appropriately for the workplace are also a necessity that people entering the workforce underestimate.

Darby Scism, interim director of the Career Center at Indiana State University, said that having worked at five universities, she has seen the common theme of being “too casual” among the 20-somethings of the last decade.

“I have students write to me using slang and text-speak, very casual,” she said. “They cannot write formal job inquiries. We tell them that when you communicate with an employer, you should not address them by their first name until you’ve been told that is acceptable.”

Some industries and employers, such as banks and legal firms, remain “very old fashioned” and expect a workforce that dresses appropriately and uses formal behavior, manners and etiquette.

The casual environment that modern technology has promoted has carried over to the workplace, Scism said. But the casual source may also come from home for many young people.

“I don’t know if today’s parents are setting example of business dress or timeliness,” she said. “Here at ISU, a lot of students do not have parents who are modeling that white-collar professional behavior.”

If parents are not wearing suits and ties to work, students are not picking up on that before they enter college and the workforce, she said.

That dynamic was evident just this past week when ISU hosted a career fair on campus and encouraged students to meet with potential employers. Few of the students were appropriately dressed to meet an employer, she said.

“We had young women at the career fair who truly believed they were dressed up,” she said. “The world is much more casual than it used to be.”

Like Langerud at DePauw, Scism said that soft skills are just as important for job candidates as technical skills.

“We can teach them the technical skills. We can teach them the job,” she said. “We cannot teach them to communicate or get along with others.”

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.

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