California employers conduct a hard search for soft skills in the workforce

150 150 Bill Britt

(Photo Credit: COD Newsroom/Flickr)

Employers across California are scanning resumes for something they consider to be more valuable than technical and administrative skills. They’re on the hunt for workers with soft skills, such as managing time, working in teams and having the basic interpersonal skills to communicate. And when soft skills are in short demand, the result can be a hiring horror story.

One employer who’s lived it is Isaac Garcia, the co-founder, senior vice president and general manager of the software company Central Desktop.

“We’ve had some really smart kids from top-notch colleges on the first or second day show up for work two hours late,” said Garcia. “When you ask what happened, the response is a blank stare with the comment, ‘Oh, I didn’t know I needed to tell you that.’ They were simply clueless about the need to communicate.”

In fact, Garcia said many of the 10 to 25 people who send resumes to Central Desktop every day don’t realize they’re sending the wrong message.

“I can tell almost immediately whether an applicant is lacking in the most basic soft skills,” said Garcia. “If the candidate didn’t know to write a cover letter that’s even remotely aimed at what we do, or if there’s no cover letter at all, we don’t even look at them.”

Discussions about the need for workers with a strong set of soft skills came up repeatedly when a California Community Colleges task force convened town hall meetings around the state to talk about workforce issues.

At the Silicon Valley town hall, Eric Edelstein, CIO for the staffing firm Nelson Companies, suggested having a required course at community colleges to help students manage their career. “Folks we talk to seem like lost sheep,” said Edelstein. “So, I love the fact that we’re training for skills. I do not think that we are successfully training them for a career.”

The Community Colleges’ Small Business Deputy Sector Navigator Lorinda Forrest said surveys of small businesses in California confirm there’s a huge need for workers with solid soft skills.

“I attended several business advisory meetings and that concern kept coming up,” said Forrest. “Things like showing up on time for work. I had one employer who said, ‘I just want them to stay their entire shift!’ It was really surprising and it just makes me think about what’s going on generationally with our students these days.”

Every generation has a critique about the younger ones, but teaching young adults the importance of having basic soft skills is fast becoming key to building a strong California workforce. To drive the point home, Forrest prefers to call soft skills something else.

“The term ‘soft skills’ minimizes their value,” said Forrest. “We call them essential business skills and entrepreneurial skills. After all, the skills needed to start a business are the skills that you need to be successful in any work environment. If you teach people to think entrepreneurially, they take the lead on something. They come ready to be a leader and they get it.”

California’s educational policymakers looking to play a role in providing more soft skills education can turn to a variety of currently working models for inspiration.

The non-profit organization Year Up Bay Area has provided both soft skills training and corporate internships for more than 500 low-income young adults since its founding in 2008.

“The students we serve have demonstrated a lot of those soft skills through their life experiences. Year Up helps them build on that foundation so that when they enter an internship all those things are perceived as assets,” said Scott Gullick, Year Up Bay Area’s director of corporate engagement. “The bottom line is they’re learning that their actions and behavior can open up opportunities or close off opportunities for them.

Garcia suggests another, slightly older model for California schools interested in teaching soft skills: Toastmasters, the non-profit organization that helps members with public speaking and leadership skills.

“One of [our] consultants said we needed to have all of our customer-facing employees sign up and become members of Toastmasters,” said Garcia. “I told him I actually took a Toastmasters class in college. So I think there’s something to it. It’s a way of learning some basic, professional etiquette.”

And while Forrest suggests educational institutions find ways to forge corporate internship partners, she insists there’s a need for a broad collaboration to tackle the issue: “This isn’t just colleges taking this on. We can’t complain. We have to do something about this lack of soft skills and working as partners will solve this problem.”


Bill Britt

All stories by: Bill Britt