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Business Roundtable: Educating the Workforce

Posted: March 4, 2014 6:54 p.m.
Updated: March 4, 2014 6:54 p.m.

Tim Grayem, founder of Canon Recruiting LLC

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Schools turn out future employees with specific skill sets – but can they think?

Employers and recruiters say graduates often lack “soft skills” necessary to be productive in the workplace – skills like communication, critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork, interpersonal skills, integrity and resourcefulness.

And in other cases, the shift in directing every student toward college has failed to produce graduates with the occupational training needed for many jobs, including those in the aerospace and defense and some high-tech fields.

The Santa Clarita Valley Business Journal invited local industry experts to share their hiring experiences: Michael Little, partner and attorney with law firm Poole & Shaffery; John Beck, CEO of Ghostman Inc. and recruiter for WayForward video gaming company; Ben Fiandaca, vice president of sales for Scorpion Design; and Tim Grayem, founder of Canon Recruiting LLC.

The latter two companies have been on the Inc. 500/5000 list of fastest growing companies for the past few years.

What skill sets are graduates missing?

BEN FIANDACA: In the time I’ve been with Scorpion Design, we’ve grown very quickly from about 25 employees to pushing 160. Our industry is somewhat volatile because it requires constant learning.

I participate in staffing on both the technical and sales sides. On the technical side, we see a lack of preparedness in two areas: communication skills and emotional maturity. Those are our biggest gripes.

Coming out of high school or college, some employees are lacking basic grammar, as far as being able to communicate through email.

Also, people are fazed easily working with others or in a professional environment. That can be easily remedied by having strong leaders within a company. Most people will pick that up and adapt.

We’ve done well by identifying a lot of people who are really willing to work. They have a hunger -- they want more. We’ve hired people who know very little and, in a short amount of time, have taken it upon themselves to learn the technical skills.

What we do has a technical skill, but it’s really more of an art form. They learn the basic skills, and as the business changes, they can learn more.

Sales is a very different beast, in terms of what we look for when hiring.

MICHAEL LITTLE: Recent law school graduates are so focused on test taking, whether it’s standardized testing to get into law school, academically oriented testing in law school and then the bar exam. The testing isn’t really practical for what you’re going to be doing day-to-day as an attorney.

Strong, concise communication skills, specifically writing, seem to be really lacking. There are a lot of new attorneys who think they’re fantastic writers. But in the legal community, there’s a big difference between writing law reviews or legal research assignments. You may have to give a report to your client and explain what problem they’re facing and how you’re going to solve it. You’re going to have to write, and write well.

And then there’s the practical application of communicating to a client concisely and quickly as to what the problem is. They need to identify the key issues and drive the point home.

Secondly, a challenge for many young attorneys is coming to the profession with a desire to always learn more and continue to hone your craft. After you take the Bar, there’s a natural feeling of ‘I made it.’ But really the journey has just begun. You have to keep your hunger, drive and focus. You have to be better each day throughout your entire career.

JOHN BECK: Our focus is in the tech sector with companies with fewer than 100 employees. There’s actually a paradox in our business. Most of all the human relationships these students have had are mediated by some kind of technology. There’s either email texting, etc. in the middle of their conversations.

The types of companies we’re interested in require a flat, collaborative organizational structure that demands team-oriented skills. But with a technology-mediated background, these students don’t have much opportunity to develop those skills.

High-tech industries have a high demand for creativity and innovation. But we’re filling it with people who have challenges with emotional maturity, teamwork and basic relationship skills, although their technical skills are there.

Are teamwork skills more of a problem because tech people may be more oriented toward working alone?

BECK: That’s definitely a problem when you talk about programming.

FINDACA: When you get to that level, you’ll deal with individuals who don’t interact much with others.

Even though everything we do is technical, it’s not all at that level. If an employee can communicate and receive direction, what we do can be carried out at every level. So we haven’t had those communication problems because that’s a very special niche.

What are companies looking for when they’re recruiting?

TIM GRAYEM: We do business with a lot of different companies, looking for different skill sets. Colleges tend to put out people who can do the ‘three R’s.’ They can basically read, write and do arithmetic. But getting your point across in a salient way in writing is somewhat of a bigger thing.

Around the office, my managers had some observations. A student, for example, may know who Adam Smith is, but they don’t know what he stood for. They can put together an excel spreadsheet, but they don’t understand how to balance a basic checkbook or how mortgages work. So my managers kept coming back to these common sense problems. Graduates didn’t understand the world around them. It’s seems a good solid civics (course) would do everyone good, so they understand how the government and free market principles really work.

How does that translate to the workforce?

GRAYEM: Our clients assume their employees will have a basic understanding of the world around them. They can do data entry and answer questions about the file they’re working on, but, they don’t understand the processes surrounding their work. That frustrates clients and frustrates us.

BECK: We set up a basic bookkeeping system for a client. In the process, a problem comes up. There’s a young millennial at the helm. When the bug came up, the comment I heard was, ‘Wow, that’s weird.’ The whole process just came to a halt. There’s no problem solving orientation there. So someone responded, ‘No, it’s not weird. It’s a problem that needs to be figured out and corrected.’

What is the general learning curve to get new employees up to speed?

LITTLE: In the legal profession, it can vary based on the area you practice in. It can take several years for many young associates to feel comfortable to run on their own. This is really a focal point in the practice of law because partners are hiring associates, training them and investing time and money in the hope that, one day, they can run free and be profitable for the business enterprise.

They need to have the initiative to learn how to get there on their own. If you combine that with the tutelage they receive in the workplace, it makes for a great collaboration. The downfall in that learning curve is a lot of students come to law expecting to be told, ‘This is what you need to do. This is what the job entails. Here’s a manual on how to be successful.’

They’ve turned off that switch. They’re not finding the answers themselves. If they do that legwork in the beginning and then approach someone more senior to present their answers, the initiative to figure it out will advance them in the learning curve much faster.

What is your experience with the support staff at the law firm?

LITTLE: The support staff has a similar learning curve.

The operation of running a law firm is not typically taught in college or law schools. So whether you’re a legal secretary, paralegal or receptionist, you’ll get caught in that situation where you don’t know the answer. The natural inclination for most is to go to the person they think has the answer and say, ‘Solve this problem for me.’

Certain people, who are exceptional, will think of all the possible solutions first, and then present them to someone in charge. If you’ve already thought about the conclusion, the work-around, beforehand, I love hearing that from associates, secretaries and staff.

BECK: It’s only natural. You’re in a new environment. You don’t know what the rules are. You’re still figuring things out.

But there’s a tendency to expect that things in the world should just work -- very much the contrary. By default, things don’t work. Part of developing into a professional is suffering through that process to become a problem-solver, and then doing it on the dimension of being collaborative with a team.

It’s a great best practice, for abusinesses of any size, not to allow anyone to bring up a problem unless they offer at least one solution.

GRAYEM: Students are taught to take the test instead of work toward solutions. I think their heads are crammed full with a certain amount of knowledge, but there’s something lacking in intellectual curiosity.

When we have a new hire in our office, they are the first person we go to with a question, as a standard practice. We always ask our newest person, ‘How are we doing?’ It puts fresh eyes on the situation.

I’d always rather someone posit question after question because, every once in a while, they veer off into the truth and save you a lot of aggravation.

FIANDACA: In my experience, school doesn’t necessarily teach you the real-life applications of knowledge. Instead, you’re dealing with the abstract -- it’s a lot of theory. For me, the connection from theory to application was never made in the educational system.

Those who worked at a parents business growing up or interned or had more work experience are the ones who are willing to learn and observe. And that’s how you learn to be a problem-solver.

And I agree -- I prefer when someone comes in asking questions. As a company, we are willing to teach anyone what it takes to become successful. Turning curiosity into learning makes for the best employee.

Maybe having more work experience would help. Maybe schools need to offer a trade school option for those who are disinterested in school. We need electricians. We need construction workers. We need a way for students to get out and feel the tools and see the trade, so they really get the application. And then they have certainty, moving forward, that they can do something that’s deemed valuable. They have a job, and add value.

People need to see what the job is like and what they’re working toward.

GRAYEM: I’d be willing to put Ben on the school board because I think he’s onto something that’s critically important to our future.

FIANDACA: I’ve worked in different companies or large corporations. Some environments are more nurturing than others. Some are more sterile.

But when you have someone who is hungry, the best advice I can give them is to make yourself valuable to the company. It gives you some stability moving forward.

What aren’t you willing to teach?

FIANDACA: Obviously, I’m not willing to teach basic decency, manners, punctuality, consistently showing up to work. You can’t teach these things anymore, by the time they get to us. We really haven’t had trouble with that, though. You assume that’s what the process of school would teach. Why else would they make us get up at an ungodly hour?

BECK: There are three phases: parenting, formal education and what should bleed over into work environment. Some people locally are getting the formal education part right. Bill Bolde at Saugus High School requires all students to read book called “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens.” It teaches you to be proactive, or begin with the end in mind. Those things can make a big difference in life if you learn them early enough. They won’t pick up all that stuff at home.

In the classroom, assignments should teach collaboration and group responsibility. We’re individualistic as a country, and students hate group projects because there’s always a slacker. But, I mean, welcome to the real world.

The degree completion program at The Master’s College devotes the largest portion of that program to communication skills.

In high school, much of the test-based teaching is forced upon them. What would you like to see educators do?

LITTLE: How do you apply your education to the workforce and bridge that great divide? The old concept is the best concept: interning, looking for a classroom outside of a classroom.

If you intern, you’ll see what the professionals are actually doing. It’s a very insightful way to see the skills you need and bridge that gap at an early stage.

BECK: I’d like to see true mentorship formalized in the education system. Soft skills are caught as opposed to taught. I’ve been blessed with a lot of true mentors. And I know it exists in the world of sports and team activity, but it’s not in the classroom.

People aren’t coming directly off the assembly line with every form of soft skill. But I wonder how much of that is actually resistance to taking on the role of a mentor -- to taking someone under your wing and really pouring into their lives to develop true talent. There isn’t necessarily a direct personal gain to making that investment.

What role should employers play in bringing their employee base along?

FIANDACA: As our industry is constantly learning, investment in our employees becomes invaluable. When we take someone on, we’re all in it for the long haul. Let’s make this the greatest company we can, invest in each other and have this great place for the future. If any new hire shows willingness, we can invest in mentorship. It provides a value so there’s a future there.

Obviously, in a recession, things tighten up, and everything becomes about the bottom line. But I think companies should invest in their employees who have long-term goal.

GRAYEM: Mentoring really is the solution to our problem.

How do we close the disconnect between schools and the businesses that hire their students?

LITTLE: This is a hot topic in the law community because there’s always a push and pull between law firms and schools. Who should expend the resources to train these young employees?

Some firms don’t want to invest the time, resource and money to hire someone young -- they’ll hire someone more senior. Some schools teach the academic, esoteric subjects and don’t focus on the practical applications.

If law schools really want to keep their student body up and grow the university, they have to focus on educating their students to get jobs. That idea is growing in popularity, especially with the law schools that work in conjunction with law firms to help give their students a leg up.

That will give you that intersection. It’s both the employer and the school. If they’re smart, both are putting resources into that practical training to bridge the gap.

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