By Madelynn Coldiron
The message from three of Kentucky’s major employers was sobering – the crowd of 1,000 or so attendees was deadly quiet – but not entirely unexpected. It’s part of what led to the state’s emphasis on college and career readiness in recent years.
That’s not to say the problem is solved, as the speakers attested in a plenary session panel discussion at KSBA’s 76th annual conference, Feb. 3-5 in Louisville.
The industry representatives painted a picture of students lacking both hard skills such as math and reading and soft skills like teamwork.
Photo: From left, Eastern Kentucky University President Doug Whitlock, who moderated the panel discussion; Jackie Beard, human resources, Norton HealthCare in Louisville; Beth Parsley, workforce planning manager, UPS; and Dennis Dio Parker, an assistant manager at Toyota North American Production Support Center, Georgetown.
Dennis Dio Parker, an assistant manager at Toyota North American Production Support Center in Georgetown, did have some positive words about Kentucky graduates, saying the state gives Toyota “very good” employees. “We find a high interest in learning new things, and there’s a lot of new learning to be done at Toyota, a lot of new ways. We find an incredible interest in trying to help the business,” he said.
On the minus side, Parker said math, reading and verbal communication can often be problems for new workers or students.
He said studies done for Toyota have shown that the score on the math assessment that job applicants must take is the greatest predictor of employee success.
Jackie Beard, who works in human resources for Norton HealthCare in Louisville, added science and critical thinking skills to the list.
“I can’t tell you how imperative it is to have critical thinking skills and communication skills, both on a one-to-one basis as well as with a team,” she said. “There’s not any place you work today where you’re not part of the team, where you’re not part of the project, where you’re not pulling your own weight.”
Math and science abilities are important, said Beth Parsley, who hires part-time and entry-level employees for UPS in Louisville, “but where we find deficiencies is that lack of commitment – that wiliness to come to work and to be on time.” UPS, which has shipping schedules to meet, lets go a quarter of its employees because of this.
Parker said Toyota employees will not be successful if they are not consistently at work every day, and on time. He notes that Toyota doesn’t build in staff numbers to absorb absenteeism, “so if someone is absent it leaves a hole in that team and that team has to find a way to cover that.”
Teamwork skills are also problematic, Parsley said, as well as the ability to communicate well with others who may be from a different background.
“We have a very diverse work group – we have single mothers, we have retired military – most of our population is high school and college-age students, but when (they are) next to an individual that (they) don’t have anything in common with, these high schoolers struggle getting along with these individuals and communicating with these individuals,” she said.
The health care field looks for “the passion and compassion,” commitment and desire to make a difference in prospective employees, Beard said. “They need to be there because they want to be there … When they want to be there, that’s when the engagement is there, the attendance is there.”
Eastern Kentucky University President Doug Whitlock, who moderated the panel, was struck by the similarities between what he was hearing from the panelists and what he hears on campus.
“If you were to talk to a group of faculty members on any campus in this state, I would wager that you would hear the same deficiencies mentioned because the reading skills, the math skills, the communication skills, the ability to think critically and creatively – those are the sorts of things that not only make someone a good employee, they’re also essential to being a successful college student,” said Whitlock, a former Madison County school board member.
It was not only deficiencies in students that the panelists noted, highlighting a school-level problem. Parker said Toyota targets 20 high schools for recruitment visits annually based on their curricula. During the most recent trips, Toyota representatives were not given good receptions at three or four of them.
“I doubt we’ll be returning to those,” he said.
Norton’s Beard said her company awards 65 scholarships annually to students in area schools, but 15 schools left that money on the table last year. The application isn’t hard, she said. “It’s just getting the word out there that these opportunities are available to students.” Parker said the same thing has happened at Toyota.
“We shouldn’t leave that kind of money and that kind of education and some kid not attached to it,” he said.
Parker’s offer to take up the business cards of board members and superintendents interested in Toyota scholarships for their students generated a line of people in front of him, cards in hand, after the session.
Advice for school boards
Parker said schools need to actively reach out to employers in their area and get them involved in the school system.
“Go and visit them on their floors and their offices,” he said. “Pull them into your schools and begin a sustained partnership with them.”
Whitlock also suggested working with the local chamber of commerce and having “an urgency” about college and career readiness.
Schools need to better prepare students in math and reading, panelists said. Parker notes there are charts, graphs and data on the Toyota plant floor because production employees have a lot of responsibility and decision-making opportunities, making reading critical.
“If they are challenged in how they read and interpret information and understand it, that handicaps us a bit,” he said.
From an academic standpoint, schools need to focus more on math to prepare their students for the workforce, Beard said.
Math should be stressed, Beard said, because it develops critical thinking skills.
“(Students) have to work through problems, they have to get a solution, so the process that you go through when you’re in a math class is very similar to what you do in a workplace,” she explained.
Parsley said schools also need to hammer away at the soft skills. “The hard skills, the math, the sciences, the reading are extremely important, but I cannot stress enough the importance of that commitment, that willingness to come to work and to come to work on time,” she said.
It boils down to accountability, Beard said: “The more it’s hard wired into folks to be accountable for the things we give them to do, the more it’s going to become natural in them as they become adults in society and look for employment.”